The weather's finally warm enough to walk around downtown Columbia without a coat, and I’ve decided I’m going to man up and pamper myself. I've never treated myself to a barber’s straight-razor shave, despite the fact that I believe in the superiority of the old-fashioned when it comes to a smooth shave. I use cream that must be whipped into a suitable lather by a badger hair shave brush, and I pair it with a German-made steel safety razor, just like your grandpa used to have. So why not go all the way and let a professional show me how it’s done?
But make no mistake about it: A barbershop shave is a pampering. It's not terribly practical, given the appointment is time-intensive and not inexpensive, especially when you consider shaving as such a mundane daily chore. And the effect is rather fleeting, no? I’ll be stubbly by morning.
But this is the perfect time of year for pampering. It's spring. Students are graduating. Young couples are tying the knot. Job interviewers are calling with offers (hopefully). New life is beginning. It makes sense that you'd say goodbye to a beard you’ve sculpted for a year. So I climbed into the chair to report on this simple question — barbershop straight-razor shaves: Are they worth it?
The shave experience
I’m almost perfectly horizontal, much in the same position you might be in at the dentist’s office — which is funny, because it was in this barber’s chair that I learned barbers were, once upon a time, dentists and surgeons, proficient at the art of bloodletting, hence the red on the famed barber poles. I’m seeing the inside of Hudson/Hawk Barber & Shop in a new way, from a different angle. How long has that taxidermic mountain goat head been up there?
Daniel Lewis, senior barber at Hudson/Hawk, looks forward to shave appointments. In a day with back-to-back appointments that often result in him cutting hair straight through his 30-minute lunch break, the shave is almost as relaxing for Lewis as it is for me.
“It gives me a few minutes to sit down, chill for a second, clean up my station a bit,” Lewis says. “So it’s a very nice break in the day.”
The first moments in the chair overwhelm the senses. Lewis begins with warm shaving cream, and I can hear its rustle as he works it into a lather on my face. I can feel Lewis’ fingers as he builds up the lather; he’s conditioning the hair but also exploring the contours of my face so as to minimize surprises when the blade is in hand. When it comes time to apply the lather to my upper lip, he uses the side of his hand, in what feels like miniature karate chops just under my nose.
Then comes the hot towel. Lewis checks the towel's temperature by placing it against his wrist. If it’s too hot for the wrist, it’s too hot for the face, he tells me. The towels are soaked in water, rolled and left in a towel steamer until ready for application. Before it reaches my face, it receives a spritz of aftershave; he’s out of essential oils today.
He places the towel, folded in half, directly under my nose. The edges are folded up to cover my cheeks and eyes, coming to a point in the center of my forehead and leaving only my nose exposed, in a shape that I imagine looks somewhat like a diamond. He leaves me there for somewhere between three to five minutes. I can hear the chatter of the customers, the music overhead, the occasional blow dryer. I close my eyes because there’s nothing to see. My heart rate slows.
“One of my greatest joys as a barber is getting to truly service somebody and really make them feel better than they did when they walked in,” Lewis says as he progresses through the lather-towel preparation a second time. “To me, there’s nothing better than giving someone a shave and 10 minutes into the shave, they start snoring. You know you’ve done your job well.”
If the relaxation of the towels slowed my heart rate, the sight of the straight razor raises it a bit. It was a Feather, made in Japan. When he tells me, I appreciate what would soon be scraping across my skin. Feather is the brand of razor blades I use at home in my safety razor, and I know from experience they’re the sharpest blades on the market. Lewis agrees, saying the straight razor is even sharper than mine at home.
"Doesn’t that make you nervous?" I ask. "You know, what if you slip up?"
“Not at all,” Lewis says, perfectly calm. “If I had any of those feelings, I wouldn’t put a razor to a face.”
He tells me that shaving is what really set him apart from his classmates at Springfield’s Academy of Hair Design; he honored in shaves. A barber student must complete 30 shaves to graduate. By the time he graduated roughly two-and-a-half years ago, Lewis had over 90 under his belt.
“A shave is a very intimate thing,” he tells me. “Very personal. You give somebody a really good shave, and they’ll never go to anyone else for their hair, for their face.” He’s right. It is intimate. He is, by necessity, very close, and I can feel him mapping out the 14 distinct areas of my face, each requiring a different one of the four basic shaving strokes: freehand, backhand, reverse freehand and reverse backhand. “A straight razor takes about the top three layers of skin off when you’re shaving,” Lewis tells me. Oh, that’s nice, I think. That’s really nice.
This towel is hotter than the rest. Or is it just in my mind? I can’t tell. But then again, I have just lost all the hairs and the top three layers of my facial skin, so who knows?
This part burns, stings. A Home Alone-screaming-in-the-mirror kind of stings. But it feels clean afterward. The air's cool on my cheeks.
My pores seize up under my fourth towel of the afternoon, promptly reversing the effect of every other towel up to that point. Lewis talks to me and gently kneads my earlobes through the towel.
Crisp, clean, the old-fashioned smell of Proraso, the Italian line of shaving products, finishes off the experience. I stand and face the mirror. My hair is all over my head, like I’d just woken up from a 40-minute nap. A small mole just below my nose was nicked at some point in the process. I never noticed. A tiny dot of dried blood is the only giveaway. I feel amazing.
After a handshake and paying up at the front desk, I’m on the sidewalk, walking down Ninth Street. I’m a new man. My freshly exposed facial skin, feeling the breeze and sun on my cheeks as Columbia sails into summer, tells me so.