- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

PORTLAND, Maine — Men trickle into the Northgate Barber Shop like a steady drip from a leaky faucet, settling in for a few wisecracks and a quick clip. “The haircut is free; the abuse is 10 bucks,” one clipper-wielding barber says during a lull in the flow of customers.

The Northgate is a no-frills barber shop with the traditional trappings of the trade — six barber chairs, Clubman talc, Bay Rum aftershave — but it’s the only one in town where patrons can wager on when a barber will give birth and how much her baby will weigh.

Judy Larsen’s place represents a break from the past as women enter the profession and graying male barbers leave it, transforming a once distinctly male bastion with a woman’s touch.

There’s no TV tuned to ESPN and no sports memorabilia hanging on the walls. Instead, Billy Joel croons from the radio. Pictures of Mrs. Larsen’s son and daughter occupy prominent spots, taped to the wall and framed on the counter that holds her razor and clippers. Snapshots of nieces and nephews are tucked behind the mirror’s edge.

Mrs. Larsen graduated from barber school in 1985 in a class of five women and one man. She went to work for a male barber before opening her own shop.

She never set out to hire women, she said, but no men responded to her call.

Women started becoming barbers in large numbers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, helping to end a slide in the numbers, which dipped to a low of 180,000.

Today, there are 220,000 barbers nationwide, roughly half of them women.

Those who run their own shops must pay for their own health insurance and benefits, one factor that Arkansas barber Charles Kirkpatrick credits for the decline in barbering’s popularity among men.

“There used to be unions and associations that provided insurance for them, and those don’t hardly exist anymore,” said Mr. Kirkpatrick, who leads the National Association of Barber Boards.

In Maine, barbers are licensed to cut, shave and dye hair, but cannot do manicures. Cosmetologists, by contrast, can cut hair and do facials, manicures and pedicures, but are not licensed to shave.

Women seem to be attracted to barbering for the same reasons men find it appealing: Many run independent shops and set their own hours. Portland barber Julie Drake likes that the men are in and out of her chair quicker than any woman and don’t ask for time-consuming dye jobs and perms that women get at salons.

Wendy Mahlfeldt, 28, of Chicago, a former cosmetologist who cut women’s hair for six years, said life got markedly better after she switched to barbering last year and joined Frank’s Barber Shop.

Even though prices and tips are lower, she doesn’t work nights or weekends anymore, and there are lots of customers to fill her days.

“It’s a pretty relaxed environment,” she said. “Not having a dress code of black — it’s just extremely different.”

In Portland, barber Bob Mitton has no objections to women becoming barbers. There’s plenty of business for everybody, he said.

At a salon, a shampoo and haircut for a man can start at $25.

Mr. Mitton charged $1 for a cut when he opened his one-chair shop in 1959. Forty-five years later, customers pay $8, and seniors pay $7. On a busy Friday or Saturday, he can clip up to 20 heads in his basement shop. And because his business is almost entirely from regulars, it’s steady year-round.

Strong, independent and quick-witted women seem to do well as barbers.

For Miss Drake in Portland, her playful shoot-from-the-hip style didn’t quite cut it with some former customers.

“I went and worked in a high-end salon,” she said. “It didn’t suit my personality.”

But at the Northgate, she fit right in with the six other ladies.

When Joe Napolitano walked in for a haircut, he and Miss Drake struck up a conversation and soon realized they had friends in common. So when he peered into the mirror and fretted over some gray hairs, Miss Drake was ready.

“Oh, shut up,” she fired as her clippers buzzed up the back of his head. “I’ve had them since I was 17.”

Unlike 30 years ago, Mrs. Larsen doesn’t feel there’s a bias against female barbers today. The same way some gentlemen prefer blondes, some like having women cut their hair because it comes with a little extra attention.

Some men just want a good, affordable haircut.

“Men, women, it doesn’t really matter,” Greg Brown said as he waited for his cut.

Across town in Portland’s West End, Joe Discatio, 89, was shooting the breeze with the old-timers at the Senior Citizens Barber Shop, a cramped little corner shop owned by 66-year-old Norman Millette.

“I started out shining shoes” in the 1930s, Mr. Discatio said. “Once in a while, I’d give a haircut. In those days, you didn’t need a license.”

Asked whether he would let a female barber cut his hair, Mr. Discatio said, “I don’t trust a woman.”

“He heard about Delilah,” joked Charles Monty, recalling the biblical story of the woman who destroyed the strength of the mighty warrior Samson by having his head shaved while he slept.

The women of Northgate have found other ways to distinguish themselves from their male colleagues. While some are proud to work 13-hour days — Mr. Mitton has never skipped a whole day’s work in 45 years — the Northgate barbers will take time off to attend to a sick child.

Men “honestly feel devoted to their customers, like they’ll let them down if they miss a day,” Mrs. Larsen said. “We work to live, the older guys live to work.”

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