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Barbershops and the barber profession in Chicago

Barbershops and the barber profession in Chicago

It no longer is a secret that the barbershop business in Chicago is disappearing. These days modern hair salons and upscale hairdressers have taken over a business that is the emblem of tradition of manhood. I remember some 10 years ago barbershops were still the rage and barbers were more than just “hairdressers”, they were the local men whom you would go to share the most intimate issues in your life. Especially for our black community, the barbershop was centered around the lives of us black men while the women preferred the super expensive hair salons to relax and straighten their nappy hair.

How barbershops and the barber profession started

Barbers have been with us for more than 100 years. In their beginning, barbers were facial doctors and would do more than shave and clip hair, their jobs often times required surgery of the mouth and even eyes! As the medical field advanced rapidly, the barber profession was limited to the cosmetic effect of grooming the face and so barbershops became a commonplace in many neighborhoods, especially black neighborhoods.

How electric shavers, manual razors and hair clippers affected the barbershop business

Up until the 1950s men would go to the barbershop daily to groom their face, mostly shaving. Then safety razors for men appeared in the market which provided a decline in customer base to barbershop. Following straight razors, a wide range of electric shavers, hair trimmers and hair clippers appeared in the market as illustrated in this link from www.BarbershopForums.com, an online community for male grooming. As you can see in the link all these shaving and hair cutting machines were aimed at male consumers who wanted to do their daily shaving and hair cutting themselves without going to the barbershop. These electric shaving tools hit the US market in the 1980s and provided and an even more devastating decline in the customer base for barbershops.

The decline in barbershops in Chicago

While all of the above reflects what happened in the United States at a global level, Chicago remained strong in its support for the traditional barbershop business. In fact I even saw a consumer report tracking the sales of electric shavers in the United States and Chicago has always been the city with the lowest use of electric shavers. Incidentally Chicago is the city in the States with the highest concentration of barbershops per capita!

Right until the early 2000s everything seemed to be fine with barbershops, however, I noticed the proliferation of more and more hair salons that catered to men around that same time. You would essentially have a hair salon across the street from a barbershop and because barbershops do not enjoy economies of scale, they could not fight unisex hair salons in terms of prices.

Hair salons soon noticed in the United States but especially so in Chicago that men would flock to hair salons provided that

  • The price for haircuts and male grooming such as shaving were much lower than the price at barbershops
  • The hair salons were not feminine and had a more cosmopolitan vibe

Slowly but surely, barbershops started to disappear from neighborhoods and black men, who are known to visit barbershops frequently, started heading to hair salons. These same hair salons ensured to have male hair dressers who could provide modern men’s haircuts and cool and creative facial hair shapes with razors and electric hair trimmers. I have seen here in Chicago how hair salons have even gone as far as to imitate traditional black barbershops with much of the decoration being copied which has of course lured even more black men. I have seen barbershop chairs as the one below at hair salons and imitating the old rustic vibe of the barbershop too, nonsense!

old barbershop chair

The future for barbershops and the barber profession

To be honest with you I really don’t know what will happen to barbershops as a business model in the next 10 years. Here in Chicago we seem to be 10 years behind the rest of big US cities in terms of male grooming and male fashion. From what I have seen in other cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, barbershops have just about disappeared from the scene and unisex hair salons and even hair salons exclusively for men have flooded neighborhoods . It is quite likely that Chicago will be next but for now, I myself ain’t giving up and hopefully you neither.

Samuel