We’re always steady

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA

Alton Davis moves around the head of an 8-year-old boy, his scissors held high, checking his work. Snip, he cuts a bit of hair from one  side and checks again.

“There you go, young fellow,” Davis says, stepping back, finally satisfied with his 10th haircut of the morning.

Davis glances at the customers seated and standing along a paneled wall. Webb’s Barbershop is packed; business is good, and Davis smiles.

“Six barbers, five days a week, and we stay busy. We’re always steady,” he said recently.

“Customers line up, sometimes out the door. Sometimes they stand on the street or wait in their cars, where it’s cool,” Davis said.

Webb’s is a testament to a time when a man’s haircut was that: a no-nonsense 15 minutes, two or three times a month. Part fraternal organization, part clearinghouse for neighborhood news, barbershops are an integral part of American lore.

Davis, 66, has worked in the same shop at Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive and Government Street since he was 16. He took over the business from his stepfather, Henry Webb, who opened it in the late 1920s.

Both Davis and his competitor, Gilbert Poydras, 63, say business is as good today as it has ever been.

Poydras, owner of Gilbert’s Barbershop and Gilbert’s Hair Care, has been cutting hair for 46 years and from 1968 to 1986 operated a store at Myrtle and 14th streets. Since then, he has opened three barber shops.

A few years ago there was talk that the old-time barber industry was headed for the cultural dustbin, because trendy mall salons were gaining popularity.

The number of barbershops in the United States began falling sharply around 1972, according to the National Association of Barber Boards, mainly because men began wearing their hair longer, ala Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.

Later, the idea that a man’s longer hair required the attention of a woman’s hairstylist contributed to the pruning of the industry.

There were 157,000 licensed barbers in the United States in 1972, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 1990, there were about 80,000.

In Louisiana, there were 6,000 licensed barbers around 1970 and fewer than 2,400 in 1990, state Barber Board Chairman Jimmy Adams said.

“We really suffered when people began to believe that the best haircuts were only available in salons,” he said. “I mean we lost customers in droves. Shops went out of business one right after another.”

Faced with disaster, the barber industry began to redefine itself to try to bring back the people who were “wowed by the smell of shampoo and mousse,” Adams said.

Barber boards across the country like Adam’s began efforts to distinguish barbering from styling.

Laws were passed defining a barber as a person with so many hours of training —not giving perms or color jobs — but actually cutting hair. Barbers also distanced themselves from salons by successfully lobbying to make it illegal for anyone other than a licensed barber to hang the traditional red, white and blue barber pole.

These moves protected the barber’s traditional niche —older men who want good, standard haircuts, Adams said. But barbers also had to lure younger customers.

“The idea that a beautician won’t shave you or that a barber can’t offer manicures is a myth,” Adams said. “But it takes times to reverse such a myth.”

Barbers like Avery Tate have taken that idea and ran with it. Tate is the staff barber for Guy’s, which opened in January on the Florida Boulevard service road near Airline Highway and the Circle Bowl. Guy’s is a salon for men, rather, a salon for men only.

Tate is a licensed barber and practices the same art performed by Davis and Poydras, but Guy’s also offers manicures, pedicures, facials and massages.

“We’re catering to both sides of what men want,” Tate said. “We’re a change from the barber shop atmosphere and service, but they can still get the barber shop cut they are used to.”

Unlike Guy’s, Mitchell’s Hair Care, at 5011 Prescott Road, and Gilbert’s Hair Care, 5336 Winbourne Ave., also serve women.

Vincent Mitchell, 35, opened Mitchell’s about two years ago because, after cutting hair for 17 years, he was convinced that the service was not only going to survive, but thrive.

“I’ve quit some good paying jobs to cut hair,” Mitchell said. “This is much more satisfying and profitable.”

Now that his barbershop is established, Mitchell said he will expand his business to include a copy center and tax preparation services during income tax season.

“You can’t just cut head after head after head anymore,” Mitchell said. “You have to listen to the customers and find out what they need.”

What many people seem to need, Poydras said, are ways to help them save time. With that in mind, Gilbert’s Hair Care on Winbourne also washes cars.

And Poydras, who also has shops at 903 Greenwell Springs Road and 7225 Winbourne, said the idea works.

“Anything that helps people use their time more wisely will usually be successful,” Poydras said. “The world today is based on efficiency, and people like the idea of getting their hair cut and car washed in the same 15 or 20 minutes.

Each year since 1990 the number of licensed barbers in the state has risen, Adams said. And recently, the rise has been dramatic, around 10 percent each of the past five years.

Wayne Daigle, owner of Wayne’s at 4414 Government St., said he believes culture and economy have sparked the growth.

“Customers have learned the difference between marketing and performance. And if they can get a good cut for $9, why pay $25?” he said.

Also fueling the barbershop comeback is the resurgence of short hair as the predominant male haircut, Daigle said. “Look at the movie stars, the popular musicians, the athletes. Most of our role models are wearing short hair again.”

Poydras said he believes the social pressure to succeed professionally also plays a role.

“More people are concerned about keeping a neat appearance, looking professional,” he said. “They’re wearing their hair shorter and coming in more often.”

The biggest problem facing barbers today is that there aren’t enough of them, Daigle said.

“We need more barbers to keep up with the customers. That’s a good thing,” he said. “We’re in demand. We’re back.”