News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 4, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Step back in time with barbershop shave

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The wisecracks actually helped. Odd as it seems, references to grisly barbershop scenes in mobster movies relaxed me.

Those reminders weren’t necessary. The image of a tense Robert DeNiro (as Al Capone) — flinching after his personal barber nicked him during a shave in “The Untouchables” — had already crossed my mind, long before I climbed into the chair at Stadler’s Barber Shop early Wednesday morning.

Thankfully though, my first old-school, hot-towel, straight-razor, barbershop shave turned out nothing like that.

It was all good.

And rare. Most guys from the Baby Boom to the Millennial generations have never experienced such a thing. Barbershop shaves faded in the 1960s and ’70s. By that time, Joe Namath was hawking Noxema shaving cream, applied by Farrah Fawcett, on TV commercials. Disposable “safety razors” and electric razors made do-it-yourself shaves cheap and quick, in the comfort of your own bathroom. Decades later, millions of men (at least those who choose to be clean-shaven) continue facing the mirror every morning to scrape off their whiskers.

Few barbers still offer straight-razor shaves, though this “lost art” is enjoying a resurgence in pockets of America. Stadler’s Barber Shop, which founder Art Stadler opened 32 years ago on Maple Avenue in Terre Haute, remains one of the few. About once or twice a month, a customer requests a shave.

For some, it’s a luxury. “It just feels so good that they enjoy getting it,” said Art Stadler, who’s been barbering for 47 of his 66 years. For others, it’s a necessity. On Tuesday, a Los Angeles native now living in Evansville walked in while on a trip to Terre Haute. He’d left his shaving kit at home and needed a shave. As Stadler’s barber John Biberstine prepared to begin, the traveler asked, “How many times have you done this?”

Jokingly, Biberstine answered, “Counting this one? One.”

Playing along, the guy, a decorated military veteran, said, “That’s OK. I’m used to pain. I’ve got two Purple Hearts.”

In reality, Biberstine has performed numerous straight-razor shaves since learning the craft through barber college courses in 1997 and earning his license the following year.  Biberstine, now 56 and originally from Kansas City, eventually conducted his first professional shave. “I was really nervous,” he recalled.

Now, Biberstine is the one putting customers at ease with small talk, stories and jokes. Skill is the key. “You never forget how, once you’ve done it,” said Biberstine. “But you don’t do it every day like they once did.”

For a barbershop shave, technique matters. “There’s certain strokes you need to do on the face so it won’t be cut,” explained John Stadler, Art’s son and a barber for the past 18 years at the family’s shop. John’s dad explained the details: “Number one, you don’t cut the guy. Number two, you keep the skin tight — stretch that skin with your thumb. And, [number three], have a sharp razor.”

The certification to use open straight razors distinguishes a barber from a cosmetologist. Despite the rarity, barber colleges still train students to perform straight-razor shaves, said Charles Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Association of Barber Boards of America. Though Kirkpatrick began barbering back in 1959, he maintains a pragmatic outlook on the barbershop shave. While its popularity has risen, especially as a nostalgic service in trendy spas, “I don’t think it’ll ever come back 100 percent,” Kirkpatrick said, speaking by phone from Arkansas.

“But it’s just like a re-enactment of the Civil War,” Kirkpatrick added, “some people never get over it.”

Just for fun, though, it’s a relatively inexpensive checkmark on a guy’s bucket list. A face shave costs $15 at Stadler’s.

On Wednesday morning, a trio of barbers manned the chairs there — John Stadler, Biberstine, and Kim Casler. Once an auto painter, the 60-year-old Casler learned barbering 17 years ago. When my turn in the chair arrived, Casler drew the assignment and handled the duties masterfully. A task, that only I had tackled previously, turned into 20 minutes of relaxation. There were plenty of laughs, with Biberstine’s quips about mafia flicks. My face shifted from the intensity of being covered with a hot towel, to the cool swipes of Casler’s razor, to an invigorating splash of aftershave lotion. Air-conditioning made the shop an oasis from the August heat just outside its walls.

Maybe our grandfathers were onto something. 



Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.