Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Barbershops were a rite of passage

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Back in the '50s, who could forget the TV ad that went, "Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya! Brylcreem, you'll look so debonair. Brylcreem, the gals'll all pursue ya; they'll love to run their fingers through your hair!"

I never used Brylcreem so not many girls ran their fingers through my hair, but I did have that wet look as a teen from Vitalis. I confess that to keep a ducktail pompadour style in ninth grade, I even used my mom's hair spray!

The barbershop was an important part of childhood, a rite of passage so to speak. Parents would bring us youngsters in and wait patiently. We were boosted up onto an elevated seat straddled over the arms of the barber chair.

As we matured, we would sit directly in the big chair, and the barber would pump it up to the height he could reach our head. He would drape us in a snap-on gown and proceed with three tools and techniques: comb with scissors, electric clippers and hand clippers.

When the haircut was over, we'd get a brushing on the neck and a dab of talcum powder. He'd lower the chair take off the smock and we'd hop out of the seat so the next customer could climb in.

Mom or dad paid, and we were good to go for a month.

Going to the shop on our own and paying the quarter after the routine was a big step. As we became adolescents, we were also permitted to check the results using a hand-held mirror and the one on the wall. We officially reached adulthood when the barber sharpened a straight-edged razor on a leather strap, dabbed us with hot lather and shaved the neck and side burns. This ordeal ended with the "tonsorial artist" dabbing witch hazel around our neck. The popularity of crew cuts made the barber's work much faster and easier.

The magazines

One of the best reasons I liked getting a haircut was the wait for several customers before me. It was an opportunity to look at the shop's magazines. Some had pretty risqué pictures for a youngster, like Police Gazette and Modern Detective. On more than one occasion, a keen-eyed barber would replace my choice of magazine with a comic book.

I frequented a half-dozen or more barbershops in Pittsfield in the '50s and '60s before heading off to college. In those years, Pittsfield had around 50 barbershops. Everyone had his or her favorites, such as Mancy's on Fenn Street, Dom's at the Wendell Hotel, and the Community Barbershop and White Barbershop, both on Elm Street. (The latter had Esquire Magazines.)

I got a kick out of one shop that was frequented by Morningside's chief bookie. Most barbers would talk respectfully with us kids, usually about sports. Barber schools now offer customer relation classes and teach students never to talk politics or religion. Over the years, I also learned that the best therapists in the world were the "three Bs": barbers, beauticians and bartenders.

Dwindling numbers

Now there are probably fewer than 20 businesses in all of Berkshire County identified as barbershops. Gone too are the red, white and blue revolving barber poles that seemed to spin endlessly. Of course there are many "stylists" who cut the hair of both sexes.

But beginning with The Beatles, a generation surfaced that avoided barbers. The disparate styles of long hair and shaved heads have continued to adversely impact barbers. Though, what memories I have of those old barbershops!

Sadly, I no longer visit them. Nature has done a good job in thinning what hair I do have. But I really miss those great magazines and the witch hazel.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield."


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