August 25, 2013

One for the aged: A young barber

Statistics show the state's population of barbers dwindling; a young man hopes to reverse the trend.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel Staff Writer

OAKLAND - For decades, the stereotype of an American barber was a kindly white-haired man with a white shirt and deft fingers, usually surrounded by the comforting aroma of hair tonic.

click image to enlarge

Derrik Vigue trims the neck of Josh Gilbert of Oakland during a cut at the Faded Lines Barber Shop in Oakland on Thursday. Vigue is a rarity in Maine: a young barber.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Sporting tattoos, loose-fitting clothes, jewelry and a baseball cap, 23-year-old Derrik Vigue doesn't look like an old-time barber. Vigue breaks the stereotypes is hoping to rekindle the appeal of barber shops to a new generation.

He can often be seen sitting on the stoop in front of Faded Lines Barber Shop, a business he opened in July on Church Street, exchanging waves with friends as they drive by.

The barber shop is next door to Fine Lines Hair Salon, where his mother and grandmother have been cutting hair together for nearly 25 years.

After Vigue's early interest in a career as a motorcycle repairman didn't pan out, he never thought he'd become a third-generation hair cutter.

He had a hard time picturing himself entering a profession that, in his experience, was dominated by either women or men over the age of 50.

He changed his mind after a visit to Boston, where he saw a busy barbershop full of vibrant energy.

As he watched the suave young barbers cutting hair to the beat of popular music, Vigue saw that, amid a general decline of licensed barbers in Maine, there might be an opportunity for a new kind of barber to emerge and serve people like Vigue -- young men who care about their appearance but don't feel a cultural connection to the traditional community barbershop.

BARBERS FADING

It's a new idea in a profession where most of the faces are well-worn.

"We're sort of like dinosaurs," said Freeman Buzzell, 72, and known to his customers as Buzzy. He's operated Buzzy's Barber Shop in Madison for 53 years. "When I started here in the early '60s, there were five barbers here. I'm the only one left."

It would be easier to count the hairs on Vigue's carefully sculpted head than the haircuts Buzzell has given over the years.

When Buzzell first opened his door, barbershops were a cultural necessity.

Back then, he said, men stayed away from hair salons in droves, worried their masculinity would be tainted by the feminine aura.

The aversion was so strong, he said, that if a man was picking his wife up from a beauty parlor, "you couldn't pay him enough to go inside."

These days, the gender barriers no longer apply, and hair salons are everywhere, he said. Most, including Fine Lines, count many men among their clients.

Buzzell and others in the industry said barbers have also lost ground to chains like Supercuts and Walmart's SmartStyle, which attract a lot of male customers.

In the meantime, after a lifetime of sweeping hair, Maine's barbers are themselves being swept from their shops by the forces of time and age.

According to state records, there were 707 licensed barbers in the state in 2001. The number has dropped every year since, to 444 in 2012, a decline of 37 percent.

The average age of a working, licensed barber in Maine was 58 in 2011, and is likely to have gone up to 59 or 60 by now, according to Doug Dunbar, legislative liaison for Maine's Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation.

If the trend continues at the same rate, within 20 years, Maine's last barber will have clipped the hair of his last client before disappearing into a cloud of hair tonic and nostalgia.

Buzzell has considered retiring, he said, but he'd miss his customers too much.

He is a living repository of the lore that only an old barber, it seems, would remember.

(Continued on page 2)

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