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Creating A Buzz

September 3, 2006
By JANICE PODSADA, Courant Staff Writer

In downtown Hartford, Jon Martin, 38, sinks into the black leather seat of a 1965 Belmont, "the Cadillac of barber chairs," and gazes at a flat-screen TV tuned to ESPN as Chris Rosa cuts his hair.

A mix of 1970s soft rock plays in the background, interrupted by the occasional, honest-to-goodness cha-ching from a 1908 brass-plated cash register.

Until a few years ago, Martin was accustomed to visiting a traditional corner barbershop. But when he started working downtown and spotted the Professional Barber Shop on Pratt Street, he liked what he saw.

"It looked sort of upscale, but homey," Martin said.

That is exactly the ambiance the shop's owners, Rosa, 34, and Paul LaChance, 36, wanted to create. When they bought the business's name and phone number 3½ years ago, it was an old-fashioned barbershop that had four previous owners and had been in business since 1927.

Rosa and LaChance were determined to realize a dream they have shared since they met 10 years ago in barber school - to offer a mix of old and new services in a classic, 1920s-style barbershop setting, including straight-razor shaves and shoe shines, and hair coloring discreetly applied in their adjoining women's salon, Bella Domani.

"There was a big lack of upscale barbershops," Rosa said. "Everybody just had the little hole-in-the wall, dusty joint."

From California to Connecticut, "themed" barbershops are a new breed of salon that caters primarily to men who are wary of unisex salons and find traditional barbershops old-fashioned.

Rosa and LaChance hope a mix of sports memorabilia, chromed barber chairs, black and white photographs of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth, café-au-lait-colored walls, and a full-service menu, including cigars, would satisfy older customers and also draw younger men who had never visited a full-service barber.

"The new kids - their only experience are the chain salons like Super Cuts, Fantastic Sams or the 85-year-old barber sleeping in the chair," LaChance said.

The business partners appear to have succeeded in attracting their target audience. On a recent afternoon, the barber chairs were occupied by men in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.

Since opening in 2003, the shop has expanded from four full-time barbers to seven. In the next few months, the owners plan to add three more barber stations to the existing nine.

"We're doing very well," Rosa said.

Haircuts are $21. Straight-razor shaves and facials are $25.

Rosa and LaChance aren't the only Hartford-area barbers hoping to attract clients seeking an alternative to the corner barbershop or the chain salon.

Lebert Fitzgerald Lester II, the owner of It's a Gee Thang barbershop in Hartford's North End, plans to move this month to a new location two blocks north. When Lester's salon opens in October, it will have a Harlem Renaissance theme featuring 1930s-era reproduction barber chairs, jazz recordings from the 1920s, a coffee café, and photographs of Joe Louis, Duke Ellington and other musicians from Lester's personal collection. In keeping with a trend toward separating the barbershop from the salon, men and women will have separate service areas, although they'll share the manicure stations and a waiting area.

"It will be a place where a man can be masculinely pampered," said Lester, 36, who has owned and operated It's a Gee Thang since 1995.

Like women, men want to look good, Lester said, even though men might be reluctant to admit it. A barber has to take the lead in offering suggestions to clients about how to treat razor burn or ingrown facial hair, he said.

Lester's barbershop offers $15 haircuts for men, $12 straight-razor shaves and $20 facials.

Although his current clientele includes young and old, he has begun marketing to teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s, offering facials and discounts for multiple services, such as a shave and a haircut for $20. Increasingly, Lester sees young men who not only want an up-to-the minute hairstyle, but also a mint julep masque. The corner barbershop isn't cutting it with the younger generation, he said.

"The old barbershop is vanishing. They're dying out."

Themed barbershops and independent salons, however, are just a sliver of the hair-care services industry, which in 2005 had revenue of $45.7 billion, according to Professional Consultants & Resources, a Plano, Texas-based company that specializes in the professional salon and beauty industries. Chain salons - companies with many branches, such as Supercuts and Fantastic Sams - accounted for $10 billion of the sales in 2005, according to Professional Consultants. The remainder comes from mom-and-pop operations.

Many of the independent salons are run by full-timers. Other owners see their businesses as an opportunity to earn extra income.

In Connecticut, the number of licensed barbers is on the wane. In 1988, there were 2,547 licensed barbers. By 2000, the number had dropped to 1,933. Now there are 1,687 licensed barbers, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Four years ago, Rob Reed needed a haircut. But the only time the 35-year-old Westlake Village, Calif., resident could get one was on a Sunday afternoon, when the Los Angeles Lakers were playing. So he left his home at halftime, thinking that he'd be back before the game ended. The local branch of a chain salon could give him a cheap haircut, but it wasn't quick - he missed the second half. That experience got him thinking: There are millions of salons that cater to women - why not one for me?

Today, Reed is an owner of Major League Trim in West Los Angeles, with six barber stations, each with its own 13-inch TV and access to the cable sports stations. It has paintings and photos of sports legends on the walls. A life-size bobblehead of Shaquille O'Neal stands in one corner.

"This is geared toward guys," said Jess Cortez, 32, who was getting a haircut recently. "Most of the stylists at normal salons don't know how to do a fade. It's all for women. There aren't any men's magazines."

Themed barbershops have been making a comeback during the past few years, said Charles Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, a professional trade group. But he thinks that even though themed salons are increasing in numbers, it will take a long time, if ever, for them to eliminate the traditional neighborhood barbershops.

"I think they'll do OK," he said. "They'll put a lot of money into it. They'll find out that the volume is not as big as they thought it would be. And some of them will get out of it."

Floyd's Barbershop, a Denver-based company that has two locations in southern California, offers a simple menu: haircuts, hair coloring, shaves and trims. The Floyd's Cut and a face shave are $19 each. The barbershop does not offer permanents because company research found that men do not like the chemical smell. What really sets the store apart, co-owner Bill O'Brien said, is the atmosphere.

The Melrose Avenue location has an Internet-enabled computer and a pool table. The walls are covered with posters and paintings of musicians, including Snoop Dogg, Johnny Cash, Christina Aguilera, Elvis and Coldplay. Loud music pumps from each of the store's six speakers. On Saturday afternoon, a DJ spins tunes.

O'Brien, who owns the company with two brothers, described his stores as "Hard rock meets the barbershop."

Those efforts seemed to work for Hollywood resident Matt Brawley, a self-described music lover who has been going to Floyd's Barbershop for about a year. About 70 percent of the clientele is male.

"It's like hanging out in your living room and getting your hair cut," the 31-year-old computer consultant said.

But not all 20- or 30-somethings are in search of an upscale experience when they're in need of a trim.

Derek Gardner, 26, for one, is just fine, thank you, getting his hair cut at the Puritan Barber Shop in West Hartford, the prototypical corner barbershop.

"I went to one unisex salon. I hated it," Gardner said, as he waited for his turn in the chair. "It felt hacked. I didn't like the haircut.

"When I lived in Boston, I went to some really old, old guys."

So when Gardner, who works nearby, popped into the Puritan Barber Shop a year ago, he felt at home. He has been coming back ever since.

The owner, Rick Grzep, 47, offers customers the "traditional, short, tapered haircut." Seniors, $12; adults $14.

"I don't try to sell you anything. No hair gels, no conditioners," said Grzep, wearing a plaid work shirt, black jeans and sneakers. Grzep, who took over the barber shop a year ago, figures the interior, which dates from the late 1930s, hasn't been touched in 50 years.

"The old barber retired after 30 years," Grzep said.

A 1960s-era Zenith color TV is tuned to the "Jerry Springer Show." Sales are rung up manually on a one-armed Burroughs adding machine, circa 1960. And anyone looking for an authentic flat-top can find it here. A six-inch-wide steel flat-top comb with a built-in bubble level - to ensure an even top - hangs above one of the shop's three barber stations.

"Just in case your barber had a few drinks the night before," Grzep joked.

Grzep has no plans to revamp his barbershop.

"This is a walk-in shop, versus the new make-an-appointment kind of place," Grzep said. "You just walk in, jump in the chair and get a haircut."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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