For many, the phrase “barber shop” brings back memories of a time when men gathered to talk sports or politics in places where the air was thick with snips, buzzes, and the peppery aroma of aftershave. Kentucky has close to 3,000 licensed barbers, many of whom have been in the business their whole life. But their popularity is decreasing as many consumers pick hair salons and chain stores over barber shops. It doesn’t help that a barbering education is getting more difficult to find. As Angela Hatton reports, to become a barber in western Kentucky these days, you’ve got to really want it.
Big Boy’s Barber Shop in Princeton is a new business with old-time flair. Owner Joe Riley opened his barber shop in the city’s downtown as a place that would capture the feeling of a mid 20th century barber shop. Walk inside, and a pot of hot coffee and a stack of newspapers and magazines beckon you to sit down and stay a while. Barber shop memorabilia line the wall above the waiting area: shaving cream brushes, straight razors, and pictures of barbers. Riley’s father was also a barber, and his inspiration. But it took Riley several years to decide to take up the business. He says it came down to economics.
“I’d been wanting to do it for years, and I worked at a place that shut down, and I’d worked at five different factories that shut down, and I decided that was the time," Riley said.
Riley started with the closest option, the barber school at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. It was there he found a problem with his plan. The school had closed the program. Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Tena Payne says the school hated to lose the program, but the economy and a small job market couldn’t support it.
“That seemed to remain very flat, in fact our student numbers continued to drop," Payne explained. "So in 2009, that’s when we were kind of doing a teach out, preparing to close the program, we actually closed it a semester early because we didn’t have any students.”
Riley says that left him with limited options.
“The only other two they said I could go to was in Bowling Green, or the Louisville area," he said. "So, for people around here that want to get in the training, or whatever, that’s a long drive.”
Riley settled on an out-of-state barbering school, in Clarksville, Tennessee. He says he got a good education, but it took longer, because, while he learned the same skills as he would have in a Kentucky school, he had to transfer his credits to fit Kentucky state guidelines, a process he says took a lot of waiting. Then he set out for the internship that all new barbers have to do once they get their initial license. Riley says that’s when he noticed how few and far between barbers are becoming in western Kentucky.
“Cause I went everywhere from here to Bowling Green to find someone to let me work under them. Went into a couple of them places and found out most of them are cosmetologists," Riley said.
A cosmetologist, or hair dresser, and a barber have a lot of the same skills. The basic difference? A barber focuses on shaving and hair cutting, while a hair dresser focuses on hair cutting and styling, and may also provide other beauty techniques like manicures.
The number of Kentucky cosmetology schools far outpaces the number of barber colleges. Over 60 institutions offer cosmetology degrees, while only nine offer barbering classes. Because they’re in the minority, barbers today recognize that they need to appeal to a wider customer market; not everyone wants a shave and a little off the sides. Remaining Kentucky barber schools are teaching more techniques. J. R. Cox is owner and operator of the Barber College of South Central Kentucky, in Bowling Green.
“When I went to barber school, all I had to learn to do was cut a regular man’s hair cut and flat top, and about the only thing they mentioned about hair coloring they mentioned in school was that 'some men colored their hair,'" Riley said. "Now we have to teach in depth men’s hair coloring and women’s hair coloring.”
Cox says his barbering school keeps up a steady number of students, with a capacity of close to two dozen. He also offers help with housing for students from out of town, to cut down on the expense of commuting to get an education.
With so many obstacles and challenges for western Kentucky barbers, it seems maybe folks like Joe Riley should pick a different industry. Cox disagrees. He says his students continue to want to become barbers because it’s an industry with job security.
“Kentucky is getting desperate for barbers, but we’re picking up more and more people all the time who are realizing this," he said. "They realize their job is not going to go to China or Mexico, or someplace like that. So they realize it’s something they can stay in until they retire.”
And for Riley, being a barber is more than giving a haircut.
“It’s kind of a lost art to me," Riley explained. It's gone to chop shops, and a lot of people like them and that’s fine, but it’s more of a quick, convenient, cut-you-and-go-type of place. And I feel you get a better treatment at a barber shop. They spend time with you at a place where you can talk and you get a better service.”
It’s the customers who want that extra level of service, and maybe a bit of nostalgia too, that will keep Riley and his colleagues in business.