Even though he’s in the barber-shop business, Jim Valenzuela is not a barber—and he’ll tell you how it happened. “I couldn’t find a great barbershop that would take me back to the memories I had of going to them with my dad,” he said. So Valenzuela decided to open his own shop in Phoenix. He filled it with all the classic trappings—big porcelain chairs, a hot-towel machine, ceiling fans. That was 14 years ago. Today, Valenzuela has expanded nationwide. “I was way out in front of this movement,” he said. “We’re starting to see others.”
Indeed so. After suffering near extinction in the 1980s and 1990s as unisex salons took over every Main Street and shopping mall in America, the barbershop has made a roaring comeback. They’re back not just as stand-alone hipster havens like the new Fellow Barber in New York’s SoHo district, but also as chain systems (often franchised), which allows them to hold their own in a world of unisex behemoths like Supercuts. Seattle-based Rudy’s Barbershop now counts 15 locations on two coasts. Wisconsin-based The Barbershop has spread to six states and plans to open its 26th location at month’s end. And Valenzuela’s barbershop—named V’s—has 20 locations with another eight slated to open in the coming months.
These new brands have carved out a niche by making an unabashed gender play, giving men not just a decent haircut at a fair price but a social space they lost when salons came to town. “The full-service salons that came along in the ’80s didn’t make sense to a lot of guys,” said The Barbershop founder Todd Degner, who added that his salons put each barber chair in its own room because “sometimes, a guy just doesn’t want to be talked to.” V’s barbershop features LCD TVs at each cutting station (tuned in to the game, of course) where the services include all the old-timey stuff: a hot towel, a straight-edge razor shave, even a shoe shine. “When I started these places, I had a pretty good idea of what guys wanted,” Valenzuela said. “The quick-cut places are convenient, but they don’t engender male commonality.”
In Brooklyn, where Rudy’s Barbershop has its newest outpost, company CEO Vy Le said that offering a local hangout is why customers will actually wait up to 90 minutes for a haircut (and why, she adds, 30 percent of them are women). “You’re coming in for a $29 haircut,” she said, “but at the same time, we’re your own community center.”
Indeed, while entrepreneurs like Degner don’t necessarily feel cutting-edge (“I didn’t invent this concept,” he said. “I just repackaged what the customer was looking for.”), Le sees the barbershop resurgence as a healthy retort to the alienation of the digital age. “Technology gives you the illusion of being connected, but people are lonely,” she said. Well, they can make new friends at Rudy’s—and get a shave and haircut, too.