Baltimore barbershops mount community comeback

As the buzz of hair clippers mixed with Gene Simmons' howl through speakers inside Beatnik Barbershop, Ali Farzad awaited his last haircut inside the tiny Mount Vernon establishment.

Raising his voice to be heard over the din, Farzad said he's moving to Los Angeles for work. After three years going to Beatnik, he's nervous about finding a new barber, he said, gazing at paintings by local artists mounted on the shop's exposed brick walls.


"I'm very particular about my haircut, and I've had nightmarish experiences other places," Farzad said. "The experience here is more personal. It's the old-school feel, where it feels like home."

Beatnik is one of at least a half-dozen new barbershops that have cropped up around Baltimore in recent years. The locally owned establishments offer a hip take on the barbering experience, cultivating atmospheres that reflect their neighborhoods and contrast with the uniformity of such successful corporate chains as Great Clips, Hair Cuttery and SuperCuts.

There's Beatnik and Baltimore Barber Lounge in Mount Vernon, Old Bank Barbers in Hampden, Blue Spark Barbershop in Lauraville and Hairway to Steven, named for its owner and the album by punk band Butthole Surfers, in Towson. Downtown there's the Royal Razor Barbershop and perhaps the granddaddy of Baltimore's resurgent barber scene — Quinntessential Gentleman, which opened on South Calvert Street in 2005.

The first two years were "a struggle," acknowledged owner Craig Martin, as he fought the notion that hetting a haircut is just another chore.

"A haircut is a check off the list for a lot of people," Martin said. "This is not a checklist. This is a destination where you come to kick your feet up and relax."

He aims to slow his customer's hectic lives down by scheduling a minimum of 30 minutes for each haircut, which starts at $30.

The formula worked downtown where his shop caters to businessmen and the area's growing residential population. Quinntessential Gentleman (the unusual spelling honors Martin's mother's maiden name, "Quinn) now sprawls over four floors with a cedar-lined cigar lounge, a spa offering massages, manicures and even clothing sales.

As slick and polished as Quinntessential Gentleman is, the smaller Old Bank Barbers on West 36th Street, aka The Avenue, in Hampden has a self-described "hipster vibe." A ceiling mural mimics Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, with Adam offering a fistful of money to a scissors-bearing, pompadoured God surrounded by coiffed minions.

The tattooed, bearded barbers working Old Bank's four chairs favor a mismatched uniform of T-shirts, cargo shorts and Vans sneakers. As at many of the new barbershops, there's sometimes a wait for a seat in one of the old-time chairs, but there's always cold beer in the fridge, music playing and conversation competing with the clippers.

Daniel Wells, 35, opened Old Bank in May 2013 after 10 years of cutting hair in other people's shops and salons. His shop, which charges $16 for a haircut, has seen revenue increase steadily every month since, he said.

"Guys are looking for this," said Wells, tapping his foot in rough rhythm to the music of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. "They want to be able to come in here, listen to music, relax, maybe have a beer. They also want quality. People want more quality in everything you do now."

Most independent Baltimore barbershops said they get more than 80 percent of their business from men, leaving women's cuts and styling to salons.

Time is a factor, given the length of most women's hair, said Bill Puller, owner of Blue Spark Barbershop, who estimates he takes only 15 minutes on 90 percent of his customer's cuts.

Even then, wait times for one of Blue Spark's three barber chairs sometimes exceed two hours, which Puller conceded can lose him occasional customers. Wait times can be long because customers choose their barber, not just the shop, he said.


"It's all about the client," Puller said. "A bartender's not going to tell you what beer to drink or what burger to eat. You pick your barber. You develop that relationship. You find who you're comfortable with."

Puller knows almost all of his customers by name, and he remembers their hobbies as well as their haircuts.

One regular, Eric Mack, stops by the basement business almost daily at 6 p.m. to shoot the breeze with the shop's three barbers over an after-work Natty Boh. Puller said it's nothing out of the ordinary for a business that prides itself as much on community as it does on the precision of its $25 straight-razor shave. Haircuts are $18.

"Somebody working at a smaller local places likes this belongs to the community," added Blue Spark barber Steve Hebert. "The shop has its pulse on it. The drug dealers, the CEOs — you get them all. Every day's an adventure."

Community is a common theme for these shops.

Beatnik's location on West Read Street in Mount Vernon — with the University of Baltimore around the corner — means owner and barber Pete Babones often has to say goodbye to customers he's gotten to know while they've passed through the city.

As he has buzzed and snipped his way through the years, Babones has seen kids grow up and customers in their 20s get married, watching lives unfold with shears in hand.

"The relationship is inevitable," Babones said. "I've touched base with the person for nine years. I've been following their life through Snapchats. It's hard, when someone you've gotten to know has to pick up and leave."

Such turnover can be challenging for a business that often relies on regulars, but Babones called the barbershop business "recession-proof" because people always need haircuts.

But the competition can be cutthroat, especially with the corporate chains with their brand familiarity and advertising campaigns. Great Clips, for example, employs more than 30,000 stylists at upwards of 3,300 salons throughout the United States and Canada.

The resurgence of the new neighborhood barber means little to Randy Rich, franchise owner of three Great Clips locations in the greater Baltimore area.

Revenue at all three locations — Rosedale, Essex and Halethorpe — is up 10 percent over last year, according to Rich. The Great Clips franchise owner said he's boiled the haircut "down to a science," and he has no patience for the traditional barbershop.

"They have to be away from us because they don't have a chance, really. It's the American way," Rich said. "Great Clips are just like Starbucks and McDonald's. You know that if you go into a Great Clips, it's going to be pretty much the same experience everywhere."

Great Clips offers affordable pricing and convenience for busy working professionals, Rich said, with a stated wait time of 15 minutes or less. Haircuts start at $14 for adults.

The business model is hurting some local barbers.


The advertising dollars Great Clips and others pump into the market means Will Colhouer of Will's Hairstyling and Barbering, run out of a rowhouse on Harford Road in Waltherson, can't hire another barber, leaving one of the shop's two chairs empty.

"Sports Clips, Great Clips — great idea, great plan," Colhouer said as he neatened the top of longtime customer Skip Kulbicki's cut with scissors. "Unfortunately, it wasn't mine. They come in here with advertising, and no one can compete. Me? I like to talk more than I cut."

"Yeah, my hair was black when he started," Kulbicki said jokingly, running a hand through his graying head.

Snippets of conversation about family and work can be overheard throughout Baltimore barbershops. Barbers say they become part-therapist, part-friend to longtime customers.

Toward closing time on a recent Thursday, Blue Spark barber Heather Manto brushed her cherry-red hair out of her eyes, as she reached out a mirror with a tattoo-covered arm to show regular customer Rich Dowd her handiwork on the back of his head.

"No," said Dowd, motioning away the mirror. "I trust you."