At a downtown barber’s in St. John’s, the twang of Hank Williams is background music as owner Chris Evans gets a tidy-up trim from apprentice Colin Moore, sporting a flattop and matching Buddy Holly-style glasses.
Working the second chair is bearded, tattooed barber Robbie Ryan.
Two years in, the hipster Fogtown Barber and Shop is a cosy but bustling business where not just haircuts and associated services are on the board, but new and used vinyl records, a few local band cassettes, skateboard decks, and Evans’ designed T-shirts and hats bearing the Fogtown brand. One T-shirt style has a St. John’s corner boy taking on the famed Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Several blocks away, on Merrymeeting Road, there’s a much different vibe in a barbershop that is pretty traditional and plenty busy.
Joe’s Barber Shop isn’t selling anything but a standard men’s haircut for just $12. There’s a few hair products and an older-era Pepsi machine in the back. A candy vending stand is for when the need arises to bribe restless little customers into sitting still.
The Joe in Joe’s was Joe Slaney, who opened the shop more than 40 years ago and had previously cut hair in shops on LeMarchant and Harvey roads.
Now at the helm is Cathy Slaney-Clancy, who was trained by her dad more than 20 years ago. The second chair’s barber is Debbie Lucas.
“Its still an old-fashioned barbershop with two women working here,” Slaney-Clancy said.
“We are usually so blocked, I say to my husband when I get home, ‘Is there any other barbershops working?’”
The walls at Joe’s are mostly covered with hockey memorabilia celebrating the career of Slaney-Clancy’s brother, John, the assistant coach of the Portland Pirates and a former AHL-NHL defenceman.
There are also photos of other family members, as well as the man known as “The Sweeper” — the late Jim Peddigrew, who came to the shop every day for 35 years. He didn’t work there, but would come in, sweep the floor and chat with customers.
“People used to think he was Dad’s father and he was only a couple of years older than Dad. He was just a figure here — it was his routine,” said Slaney Clancy.
“It was nice.”
Slaney-Clancy has been working at the shop for 26 1/2 years and Lucas for 16 1/2 years.
Both trained as cosmetologists and Slaney-Clancy worked in a women’s salon for nine months starting out, but she prefers cutting men’s hair. Lucas always intended to cut men’s hair.
Slaney-Clancy recalls how, in the beginning, she was nervous. One day early on a customer waited for her and then asked that she shave his head. Her father laughed.
“I started to sweat,” Slaney-Clancy said. “(The customer) put me in such a state. But he said, ‘You shave someone’s head once and you will get over it.’”
When the Family Barber Shop closed on Duckworth Street years ago, some customers drifted to Joe’s, but Lucas recalls one unhappy would-be patron.
“This one guy came up. He opened the door, looked in and said ‘Is this a barbershop?’
“Yes,” Lucas replied.
“No man barber?” the man asked.
“No,” she answered.
“Where’s the nearest barbershop?” he asked, indignantly.
They promptly gave him directions to Stan’s Barber Shop on Mayor Avenue.
But that tale seems an anomaly at Joe’s, where customers are loyal and even text or email Slaney-Clancy or on holidays to see when they are returning. A former female barber from the shop who left to raise children often fills in.
The old-fashioned business values that Joe Slaney taught his daughter have stuck with her, but there aren’t any other Slaneys working in the business, although John Slaney’s daughter, Julia, is apparently interested.
But she’s only seven.
“Before she comes home (from the States), she calls and asks if she can come back to work,” Slaney-Clancy said of her niece.
She’ll come in with her grandmother, Helen, and scrutinize the shop, though she hasn’t asked to cut hair yet, but Slaney-Clancy expects that is coming.
“She came home when John was being inducted (in the American Hockey League Hall of Fame). She never even brought her stuff in and came right to the barbershop, picked up the bottle of water and the cloth and started cleaning the chairs,” Slaney-Clancy said.
So what do Slaney-Clancy and Lucas and think of the new shop, Fogtown?
(Some customers) come in and say, ‘Down at Fogtown I can get a beer.’ I say, ‘Sometimes (customers) come in here with their own beer,” Slaney-Clancy said.
“They got the new music and the style haircuts. We like to stick with the old tradition.”
Down at Fogtown, there is a sleek beer fridge sporting the Fogtown logo. Customers are offered a beer with their cut for about $20.
Evans, who co-owns the shop with Mackenzie Geehan, expanded to two chairs in May 2013 and the shop is now open seven days a week to keep up with demand.
While Hank Williams is playing on Evans’ iPod, there are a couple of vintage record players. There’s also some traditional barbering artifacts, some of which came from the Family Barber Shop.
“We don’t forget how important (Family Barber owner) Ted Doyle was to this business,” Evans said.
The Fogtown location on Prescott, just off Water, is ideal for businessmen, tourists and people who live downtown. Customers include local celebrity chefs, hockey players and musicians.
“We got a couple beers. People get into those and hanging out get loose, tell about their day and what they’ve overheard — all get pretty chatty and pretty close,” Evans said of the shop.
“I think it’s shown people it’s an option again. For awhile, people didn’t consider (going into barbering.) They thought it was dead,” Evans said, adding many of the city’s male barbers are at retirement age.
“I like it, not just as a good business. I really like it; want to stick with it. There is a saying: barbers don’t retire, they die. I would like to do that.”
Evans recently gave an 11-month old his first haircut.
“Maybe I’ll be cutting that guy’s hair until he’s 40 years old or something like that,” he said.
The style of cut can be traditional, modelled after the latest style — an homage to celebrities like Brad Pitt or David Beckham — or something unusual, like the guy who recently came in with long, slick hair looking for a flattop, buzzed bear-claw sides, but nothing off the back length — a take on the once cool but often ridiculed mullet.
“It looked pretty cool. I wouldn’t want it,” Evans said.
“When I was in hair school, instructors were saying they had spent all day long cutting mullets.”
But he said he felt good about doing the youth’s hair.
“It’s a hard haircut to do. You know you are doing a good job when somebody can’t stop looking at themselves in the mirror after. They’re leaning in waiting for debit to ring through and they are looking in the mirror.
“This guy was loving it.”