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In An Ashland Barbershop, A Dying Art Lives On

Mitchell johnson/JPR
The Modern Barbershop in Ashland, OR.

The old-fashioned barbershop, with leather chairs, straight-razor shaves, and gossiping men, is a common image in American culture. But in 2017, the real thing can be hard to find.

But in a strip mall in downtown Ashland, right between the liquor store and a donut shop, you’ll find the Modern Barbershop.

“And the only thing really modern about it is we have LED lights, and a fan that automatically turns on when someone goes to the toilet.”

That’s Glen Miller, the owner of the Modern Barbershop. He admits the name is a bit ironic now- looking around the shop, it’s straight out of another era. The chairs are vintage ‘50’s chrome and leather, the walls are crammed with knick-knacks, old posters, and taxidermied animal heads.

“There’s stuff in here, I don’t even know what it is or where it came from,” says Miller. “But, for instance, did you see that ball over there, that furry ball? We ask people what they think it was and people come up with all kinds of things but it was a hairball from a cow’s stomach. Only found at Modern Barbershop.”

The business hasn’t changed much over the years. They charge 16 dollars for a basic haircut, and they don’t do shampoos, styling, or dyes. It’s walk-in only, no appointments. And in a world of unisex salons, they still cater mostly to men.

“99.9% men,” says Miller. “There’s a few gals that get their hair cut shorter and come in here.”

Barbershops like this one are an increasingly rare sight. For decades, the number of barbershops in the country has seen a steady decline.

“It’s all been turned into hairdressers, cosmetologists, beauticians,” he says. “It was kinda sad to see a dying art.”

Nevertheless, the men that work at the Modern Barbershop keep cutting hair the same way they’ve done it for decades.

“There’s over two hundred years experience cutting hair among the barbers that work here, so yeah, we’re ancient,” says Miller.

Vern Cordier started working at the shop sometime around 1966, he doesn’t remember exactly when.

“I told people that I got into barbering because I’d be inside, I didn’t think it would be all that hard,” Cordier says. “But it turned into more of an art for me, being able to determine what a customer wanted and then give it to them. But barbering is an art, and you’ve gotta have a little bit of an artistic flair in order to serve a customer.”

Vern is close to retirement now, but he says the shop is in good hands. Those hands belong   to a man called Little Joe. He’s the youngest employee at the shop, by about 20 years. And he’s entirely bald.

“Because it’s like never trust a skinny cook, watch out for the bald barber,” laughs Little Joe.

The other guys in the shop went to traditional barbering schools, which don’t really exist anymore, so Joe learned the techniques on Youtube. He does old school haircuts as well as newer styles. And in recent years he’s seen a resurgence in traditional barbering, mostly due to one haircut: the fade. Short on the sides, longer on top, in 2015 GQ named it “the most popular haircut in America.” For people who want this style, barbers have one clear advantage.

“Some of the shorter haircuts have come back into style, and that’s more of a thing, to do a good job on shorter hair cuts you need to be good with clippers, and barbers have the clipper skill,” Joe says.

No one who works there knows exactly when the Modern Barbershop opened. They know it’s been in business at least as far back as 1931, thanks to an old calendar they found in the shop. Back then it was in the heart of downtown Ashland, but by 1980 the rent was too high and it had to move. The Modern Barbershop has weathered economic downturns and an increasingly upscale Ashland. It still does steady business. So Glenn Miller is optimistic about the future.

“I think we’re gonna carry on tradition, we’re gonna keep on keepin on as long as we can,” he says.

That is, unless long hair comes back into style.