Not Your Grandfathers Barbershop

September 6, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The slogan says it all: "Not your grandfather's barbershop, but he's always welcome!"

The newest addition to the downtown landscape, Jude's Barbershops, is wrapping up a seven-day free haircut promotion today, part of the grand opening celebration for its flagship location at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW.

From the 42-inch plasma screen TV to the rock 'n' roll décor and complimentary Pabst Blue Ribbon, Jude's lives up to its slogan. It isn't a traditional barbershop. By design, it has more in common with a salon than the neighborhood barbershop.

"It's called a barbershop, but it serves both men and women," said proprietor Thomas Martin. "High-end salons have more of a women's atmosphere. We wanted to strike a difference balance."

Martin and his wife, Heather, own and operate Kentwood's Studio1 Salon and Day Spa. There, his clientele is over 70 percent female. Martin expects Jude's to reverse that ratio using a model developed by a unique eight-unit chain in Portland, Ore.

"We like to think of it as a modern-day barber shop," he said.

Some elements are throwbacks to traditional barbershops, such as straight razor shaves and neck cleanups; others are unique to the Martin family, such as the Pabst and the name Jude — his father's name.

As a whole, Jude's revisits classic barber services — hot towel facials, shoulder massages, shaves, beard trims and clipper cuts — in a salon fashion.

Over the next year, Martin intends to open 12 more locations, including four more this fall in Cheshire Village at 221 Plainfield Ave. NE, Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids, Rivertown Circle in Grandville, and in Jenison.

Roughly a mile due north, at the corner of Leonard Street in the Old North Boundary shopping center at 1140 Monroe Ave. NW, another barbershop is testing the burgeoning downtown market with a traditional approach.

"The people that come in here keep coming back," said Mike Brown, who opened Mike's Barbershop in January. "My biggest challenge is just getting people to know I'm here."

Brown has been cutting hair for 28 years. He started his career at a full-service salon after graduating from the Flint Institute of Barbering, in the midst of a long-hair era that saw as many as 75 percent of the nation's barbershops close their doors.

Until the '60s, hair was short and a haircut was needed every two or three weeks, he explained. When long hair was in fashion, patrons could go a month or two without a hair cut. Today, short hair is in vogue again, although Brown has noticed a growing number of teenagers with bushier styles.

The oscillating fashions work in favor of salons and chain establishments like SuperCuts and BoRics Haircare. The chains are protected by sheer volume, created through marketing and convenience. Patrons there seldom care who cuts their hair or at which location they do so. Opposite of that, salons rely on loyalty, with deep margins and extra revenue from product sales.

The chains are less reliant on male clientele than barbershops, while salons are nearly independent of it.

Brown, for instance, readily admits that he isn't interested in cutting women's hair. He's had three female customers since he opened.

According to Martin, that is the principle behind Jude's business model: a salon for men and women. Its success, however, may depend largely on defeating the attitude that has kept Jerry DiTrapani's Barbershop at 1001 East Fulton St. — today known as DiTrapani's Co-Op LLC — bustling since 1946.

"I come here because it's a barbershop," said customer Matt McMurray from the chair of barber Fernando Aranjo. "I've gone to a salon and gotten bad haircuts for 20 bucks, and then they expect me to give them a $5 tip. I'm supposed to sit there for half an hour while they treat me like I'm privileged to be there.

"Here I can just sit down and get my hair cut, smoke in the back, read golf magazines and just be myself."

At Jude's, a regular haircut runs from $19-$22; long hair is $27. At DiTrapani's, a regular haircut is $8.

"I think everyone has tried a salon once or twice, spent $20 and got a lousy haircut," said barber Fred Boggiano.

The nearly 60-year-old DiTrapani's is, quite literally, "your grandfather's barbershop."

Boggiano has operated a chair there since 1959, and remembers a time when nine barbers shared the shop. He doesn't think of it as a neighborhood barbershop — it has regular patrons from as far away as Lowell.

McMurray drove from Kentwood to have Aranjo maintain his crew cut, which the salons and chains aren't comfortable doing.

"I think neighborhood barbershops are making a comeback," Boggiano said.

The same can't be said for the barber.

Barbers and stylists both require a license from the Michigan Department of Labor. Barbers are licensed through the Board of Barber Examiners; stylists through the Board of Cosmetology.

The majority of stylists at chains and salons are cosmetologists, which requires 1,500 hours of training spread between hair and other services such as facials, skincare, makeup and pedicures. Salons usually add exhaustive in-house training, while the chains may have a new graduate wielding scissors.

To sit for the barber exam, a student must have 2,000 hours of training and learning everything that a cosmetologist learns about hair — but with a quarter more schooling — and how to shave with a straight razor.

For many years, there were strict differences between salons and barbershops. According to Joe Campbell, license administrator for both boards, the growth of cosmetology warped the standards, and eventually, the only service a barber could provide that a cosmetologist could not was a straight razor shave.

In 1997, that prohibition also was lifted.

As such, the definition of a barbershop has changed. It is possible for an establishment to call itself a barbershop and have no barbers at all.

Today, there are 6,517 licensed barbers in the state of Michigan. There are 77,109 licensed cosmetologists, of which all but 1,734 aestheticians are permitted to perform the same services as a barber.

Many of the 10-12 stylists at each Jude's location will not be barbers.

Elvira Leroy is an instructor at the West Michigan College of Barbering in Kalamazoo, one of only four such schools in the state. She said that many men still gravitate toward barbering.

"It's a machismo thing," she said. "There is not much difference between them, but most men want that barber title …"    

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