A Man’s Place: The West Street Barber Shop
When I was a boy, every few weeks my father and I would take a walk up Far Hills Avenue, in Oakwood, a “suburb” of Dayton, Ohio. I put “suburb” in quotes, because it was nothing like the suburbs that we think of now, with sidewalk-free winding roads ending in cul-de-sacs with names like “Willow Court” or “Elm Drive,” and a good 40 minutes from any city and a 25-minute drive to the mall.
Oakwood was nudged up right up against the city, and only a 15 minute ride by trolley car to central Dayton. It was an electric trolley, with overhead lines, and we used to throw snowballs at them in the winter, trying to knock the connecting arms off of the powered lines. One of its stops was a block away from our family’s house.
Back in those days, streets had sidewalks, because people didn’t feel the need to hop in their cars to ride a quarter-mile down the road to the pharmacy, or the florist — or the barber shop. Which is where my father and I would walk to every few weeks. I had nearly forgotten those walks until today, lost somewhere in the 45 subsequent years of family, career, losses and wins. Dad and I would amble up the road — he was the man who taught me how to amble like a boss — sometimes talking, sometimes not, sometimes Dad just whistling the aimless tunes that marked the man at his leisure.
We would step inside the barber shop and take a seat. I can still hear in my mind the clatter of scissors, and the rustling of papers, as my father and other men would peruse the Dayton Daily News. Somebody was always talking sports. In the fall, it was Ohio State football, and to what heights legendary coach Woody Hayes would take the team this year. In the winter, the University of Dayton’s basketball team was scrutinized for deficiencies.
During the “funny season,” the relative merits of LBJ, Nixon, and an ever-changing sideshow of minorly-corrupt state governors would be discussed, often with vigor. Against this backdrop of men enjoying each other’s company, the barber would invite me into his chair. He would always ask me if I wanted my ears lowered, and I would smile and say, “yeah, just give me the usual.”
Then I went to college, and the world changed, and all of that was lost. Men no longer went to barbershops, they went to hair stylists, or salons. The stylists were inevitably women, and the clientele mixed. Mostly women, with a few men peppered about. There was no newspaper, no sports section, but style and celebrity magazines on the table. Aside from the fact that there was no-one to discuss sports or politics or other topics of interest around, you couldn’t hold a conversation over the noise of hair dryers.
I never felt fully at home at a salon, a feeling I suspect is shared by many men. This was women’s territory, the land of looks and locks, of Farrah Fawcett and Dorothy Hamill. This was no place for men. And, frankly, I thought that the old barbershop was lost, relinquished to that quaint-but-long-gone closet of Mayberry and John-boy Walton.
Until today. When, on my way back from the bank, I stumbled upon the West Street Barber Shop, in the center of Litchfield. It is in the collection of buildings known as the Yard, next to the paint store. And it is there that Aaron Devaux has created, not just a place to cut your hair — but a man’s place, a reclamation of one of those public spaces that yielded to the encroachment of gender neutrality when I was in the strength of my early manhood.
I walked in and sat down. In the reclined barber’s chair, a man sat, his face swathed by hot towels. In the cold air which I brought in with me, I could see the steam rise from them. Gradually, and with the unhurried skill of a sculptor, Aaron brought lather and a straight razor to the man’s face, reducing stubble to a shiny gleam.
Beside me sat an older man, who abruptly harrumphed at the newspaper he was reading. “Look at that idiot,” he said, thrusting the newspaper at me, showing me an article about Newtown murderer Adam Lanza. We talked about gun control for a few minutes, and then it was his turn in the chair.
I sat back, intermittently scanning the paper, and watching ESPN highlights on the flat screen TV across from me. The three of us chatted about weather, business and the price of things. We all agreed that the first could be better, as could the second, and well, what could you say about the third? Everything’s too expensive these days.
After a bit, Aaron called me up. I didn’t say “give me the usual,” because I’d never seen him before. But he pretty much knew, through that unspoken osmosis that carpenters use to build houses, what I wanted. As he cut my hair, we talked about the trials and tribulations of being fathers, particularly being fathers of daughters. About the state of Litchfield schools (pretty good, but could be a little better), and the teachers that made an impact in our lives and that of our children. I mentioned how much I missed a good shave with a straight razor since I’d grown a full beard, and he volunteered a trim so I could experience a bit of that pleasure once again.
So then it was my time to lie back, wrapped in the warmth of moist towels, listening to the play-by-play of some game in Cincinnati. And my mind drifted back to those walks and talks with my father, that I had almost entirely forgotten. And in that remembering, I realized that I had found again something that had been lost, and that I needed, but I hadn’t known it until now. It wasn’t just the excellent haircut, or the trim, or the expertly-wielded straight razor.
It was the kinship of gender, the opportunity to trade insights and opinions with other men who, though different than me, are also very much the same, that made this haircut better than any I have had in years. There aren’t too many places left like this. The bar, perhaps, if you have enough money and like the booze. Maybe the gym, though men have lost their singularity there, as well. There just aren’t many places for a man to just be a man and, if you’ll excuse the awkward metaphor, just let his hair down.
If you are a man, I cannot more strongly recommend that you pay a visit to Aaron at the West Street Barber Shop. I’m not going to give you Aaron’s phone number, because you don’t need an appointment, and if he’s with a customer he’ll just ignore your call. His shop is at the bottom of the hill on West Street, in the Yard. If his barber pole is lit, he’s there. Walk in, sit down, and grab a section of the newspaper. And rediscover — or discover for the first time — a place that was once lost.