Barber shop culture is a way to connect to the past and present
The breeze stirs the leaves of the tall trees that mingle with brick buildings along Ingersoll Avenue. On the 36th Street block there’s a row of single-story shops, recently refinished to welcome new tenants. Much like the revitalization of other spaces on Ingersoll, the familiar barber pole and its beacon of red, white and blue hearkens to a different American era.
The friendly neighborhood barber shop in the low brick building is home to Loyal Sons, founded and opened by Eric Hutchison in the late summer of 2018.
“The name is from a line in the Iowa State fight song, ‘Loyal sons, forever true,’” said Hutchison. “The other meaning behind the name ‘Loyal Sons’ is five young barbers, working in a shop that looks like a barber shop that their grandfathers would go to. We’re trying to work in a very traditional aesthetic barber shop, and are also in the mindset of being 110 percent committed to honoring the trade.”
Whiffs of mid-century nostalgia are incorporated throughout Loyal Sons from the beautifully modern teak cabinetry to the teal blue paint on the walls that perfectly matches a 1958 Chevy Impala to the floral wallpaper with its silver curls and pink and blue gardenia print. There’s a taxidermied wolf head in one corner that snarls menacingly over a vintage “Health Chart” floor scale. Cans of pomade are stacked neatly inside a vintage cabinet. A print of pheasants bursting into flight, that hung in Hutchison’s grandpa’s living room, now hangs above a few chairs where customers wait for their turn in the barber chair.
Like a chef ’s mise en place, barbering tools are prepared and ready at each station. Clippers sit next to three sets of scissors, and then a brush, and then a neatly folded towel. Each tool and bottle purposefully arranged for smooth transition and service.
Five refinished and reupholstered chairs with fresh chrome line one wall. Each chair’s station is decorated with signature talismans of the barber who presides. Hutchison’s spot in the front near the big bay window — that has a perfect vantage point of all the activity on the block — is a nod to his grandfather and the old guard of barbers that he has met from around the state that inspired him to pursue this trade.
Preserving and promoting a sense of neighborhood
Loyal Son’s new home on Ingersoll — beautifully appointed with its mix of mid-century and quirky Midwestern touches — is an important fixture in the neighborhood, as barber shops have been since the 19th century. Barber shops have historically played a role in not only being a place for a haircut or a shave, but also as a space to gather, catch up on community happenings, and to mull over current events.
Barber shop culture is centered around connection and friendship, whether a customer has just walked in for the first time or has been a regular for 20 years.
“I really want a neighborhood barber shop that people of all demographics feel comfortable going to and can walk in to,” explained Hutchison.
The goal is to be that space on Ingersoll, “hopefully, a 40-year barber shop,” and to help keep the neighborhood firmly grounded as new restaurants and retail move in, spaces are built and renovated, and more foot traffic frequents the sidewalks.
“To me, most importantly, it goes back to being authentic,” said Hutchison. “My goal to opening Loyal Sons is to be the best little neighborhood barber shop we can be.”
Barbers and the barber shop extended family
The act of a haircut or a quick shave may seem transactional, but as Hutchison describes it, it is a time to bond and share stories with the customer. Something he attributes to learning in barber school — when the director said that barbering is “80 percent customer service and personality” — it is the opportunity to build common ground and a much deeper relationship.
“You can’t teach someone how to make a real human connection with another person. If they don’t have that desire or that ability, then you can’t force them to do that. They have to be a ‘people person’ and you have to have a good personality to be a successful barber.”
The beauty in building an extended family within the barber shop is that there are customers who return for years and bring their children and their children. Barber shops are a place to prepare for the mundane or for the extraordinary. Hutchison embraces that expectation and insists on the importance of knowing everyone’s name and story. There is no television in Loyal Sons and no one answers their phone.
“If you’re going to sit in my chair, I don’t want to just know you for 30 minutes while I cut your hair,” said Hutchison.
“I look at someone like Aaron Graves, I’ve cut Aaron’s hair for the last three years, but I’ve also cut Finn’s hair (Aaron’s son). Someday I’ll do Finn’s hair for prom, someday I’ll do Finn’s hair for graduation, someday I might cut Finn’s hair for his wedding. That’s how important this relationship can be. That’s how I treat that.”
Keeping an American tradition alive
Forbes reported that the men’s grooming industry is estimated to reach $26 billion by 2020. Like a good dive bar, barber shops are the revitalized establishment that continue to have pull across generations.
“There are guys in their late 60s and early 70s, who looked at barbering as a career in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Hutchison. “Then there’s us, 20s to young 30s guys, that are like ‘This is a legitimate thing.’ And I think Instagram really helped that. I loved the (barber shop) culture, kind of like a tattoo shopspeakeasy- bar feel, there’s that community aspect.”
The connection to a different era remains relevant as more millennials gravitate back towards trends that resonated with their grandparents.
“We want to ride old motorcycles, we want to drive old trucks, we want to wear cuffed jeans, we want to have flat tops, we want to smoke pipes, we want to have that sense of adventure and masculinity,” says Hutchison as he fondly takes a frame down off a shelf and shows me a senior picture of his grandfather from Waukee High School (pre-Great Depression era). “People connect to that type of scene. Young men going back to barber shops is part of that — feeling connected to what their fathers and grandfathers were connected to when they were young.”
While each establishment puts its own spin on the aesthetic, the foundation and tradition of barber shops is sacred.
“If it wasn’t for the dudes at Mike’s barber shop in Spencer, Iowa, 40 years ago, I would not be opening the doors of Loyal Sons. It’s like the truth of it, you know. If it wasn’t for Pope’s or Roosevelt or Penrod’s, you know these barber shops that are 97- to 110-years-old, I couldn’t open Loyal Sons. These people are keeping barbering alive,” Hutchison says passionately. “There’s no reason to change. Stay true, stay the course to the tradition of barbering and the craft of barbering and people will see that in your work, and your attitude, and how you treat your customers. Don’t change the game, just stick to it. The road map is there, just stay on it. Do it your own way, but stay cool.”
Hutchison said one of the most memorable and meaningful moments since opening the doors of Loyal Sons came when Lanny, the owner of Waveland Barber-Stylists, stopped in with a bottle of Clubman’s aftershave for each of the five barbers.
“As a young barber it should be my goal to show those guys that I deserve their time and their respect. I have to earn that and I have to show them. I want to show you that I respect the tradition and the foundation like the guys who did it in 1966. I want you to know that I have a lot of respect for you and how long you’ve been doing this. And like Lanny coming in, that was like a big moment. That’s what I want. For barbers to come in and be like ‘Well done guys. Well done.’ That means a lot.”
To learn more or book a classic haircut or hot towel shave, visit the Loyal Sons Barber Shop website