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Barbershops and Barbering in the District; DCRA Regulations Govern the Profession

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the July 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

What man does not need a haircut, beard trimmed, mustache groomed monthly? What is the difference between a $13 cut and a $35 styled cut? Maybe, the barber shop. Except now one can pay $45 for razor cut plus free beer.

Scot tells The InTowner, One of the first things I do when I visit Rehoboth Beach is to go to the barbershop. There, I get caught up on all the news.”

Leslie remembers, “Oh yes, my dad’s barbershop was a community center. His cronies would spend half of the day there yakking; coffee was always brewing.”

David says, “At least once per month, I bond with my son at the barbershop.”

Barbers of the Middle Ages not only practiced shaving, haircutting, and hairdressing, they also dressed wounds and performed surgical operations. They were called barber-surgeons. They identified themselves by the poles displaying red and white or red, white and blue stripes — the red representing blood, the white for bandages, and blue for the veins.

When, in France in 1743 and England in 1745, barber-surgeons were no longer permitted to perform surgery and were restricted to barbering only they kept these poles as their identification.

When many Americans think about barbers and barbershops, their imaginations may evoke the old Andy Griffith Show’s barber Floyd Lawson. This whimsical, laid-back and absent-minded character set the stage for the barbershop to be a kind of community center where discussing current events played a major role in town issues. This beloved character was based on a real life Mt. Airy, North Carolina, barber.

The oldest continuously operating barbershop in this country is the family-owned George’s Barber Shop in Sangus, Massachusetts. Founded in 1902, its slogan, “We are not the best because we are the oldest. We’re the oldest because we are the BEST!,” says it all.

Today, the barbershop business is alive, and well, and transforming. A good example is that of Diego’s one block north of Dupont Circle.

The DC Department of Employment Services’ Office of Labor Market Research and Information projects that by 2022 there will have been a 23% increase in the number of individual barbering licenses issued since 2012 as a consequence of the apparent growing demand of men for grooming services.

The District’s Board of Barber and Cosmetology regulates the practice of barbering in DC; the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) is responsible for ensuring that licensed barbers adhere to the practice requirements.

Among those requirements is successful completion of the 1,500 credit hour Barbering Styling Course. This program of study includes instruction on sanitation, sterilization, and safe work practices; implements, tools and equipment common to the barbering profession; facial massage and treatment; shaving; haircutting and styling; mustache and beard design; hair coloring and chemical services; and other occupational requirements.

In Northeast DC’s Brookland neighborhood it is the Bennett Career Institute (BCI)  where aspiring barbers, beauticians, and related professionals enroll in the curriculum which conforms to the requirements set down by the Board, designed to prepare students for a barbering license and profitable employment upon graduation. Field trips and participation are incorporated in the curriculum as well.

Once aspiring barbers have successfully completed the course and passed the examination for licensure they will be qualified to obtain employment as a barber in a barbershop, as well as other opportunities.

In addition to passing the 1,500 credit hour course and the subsequent mandated examination, license applicants need to be at least 17 years old and have either a high school diploma or GED.

BCI is licensed by the DC Education Licensure Commission and is accredited by the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS). In an email exchange, owner and founder Chet Bennett responded to the following questions posed by The InTowner: 

Q: How did BCI get started?

A: “I started Bennett Beauty Institute in August 1996 with five students. By November I had the largest beauty school in the District! I was the school administrator for the DC Beauty Academy for four years before I opened Bennett.”

Q: Do all DC barber examinations take place at BCI?

A: “Bennett Career Institute is the host for the practical examination for the Barber and Cosmetology Board.”

Q: Have barbershops transformed over the decades? How?

A: “Barbershops have transformed into full service salons and now men’s grooming centers.”

Q: What is the future of barbershops?

A: “Barbershops are moving towards full service men’s grooming places — more than haircuts.”

DC has a wide variety of barbershops, including Diego D’Ambrosio’s iconic establishment in the Art Deco-style former Moorings apartment building at the corner of 19th and Q Streets, NW.

Along Georgia Avenue alone, some estimate there may be as many as 42. One of those is Aaron Whitaker’s DC Barber Center in the 3800 block which especially caters to an African-American clientele. His customers refer to him as an historian who facilitates fascinating discussions — sometimes light-hearted, sometimes heated, but always respectful.

At the corner of 14th and Ogden Streets in North Columbia Heights, the Francis Beauty Salon is an example of the trend of melding hair styling with barbering. Owner Francisco Macias says that he became interested in cutting hair at an early age. Unlike other barbers interviewed, barbering does not run in his family. Francisco’s barbering education lasted for a year and included the study of anatomy.

He asserts that most barbers have an interest in science, since they must study anatomy.

Mario Leonzo, a barber in Columbia Heights, in talking with this reporter, recalled, I knew since I can remember that I wanted to cut hair. It really motivated me more to proceed with my barbering education when photography died down. Yes, my family does come from a line of barbers —  my uncle on my mom’s side was the best in town.

“And for years barbering has been pretty much the same, until now that soccer players and players of sports have cared more and more about their appearance that barbers have brought back old barbering traditions like using hot towels, straight razors, reclining chairs and the best of pampering for the well being of a man’s swag.”

Over on 18th Street near Florida Avenue is a new barbershop, Wise Owl Club, where regular customers are so pleased with their experience they are willing to stand in line outside waiting for their $45 haircut (there no appointments given). As Cliff Reader posted on Foursquare, “This is the only place I’ve ever gotten my hair cut and they knew how to shape/trim a beard.”

An excellent way to conclude is to quote the grandson of the oldest operating barbershop in the United States, Mike Moriello:

“I love the concept of your article. In recent years the barber trade was somewhat of a dying art. The big unisex national chains were popping up everywhere and the old small town barbershops were becoming a thing of the past.

“When I started out there were not many young men entering the trade. I had great pride in my family’s business and I wanted to keep the barbershop alive and well in our community. I am proud to say the shop and the trade in general are both thriving in 2017!

“I think in part the internet and social media has shown a bit of a spotlight on the industry and people have recognized the talent and art involved in barbering. The old-fashioned barbershop services such as the straight-edge razor shave, hair designs, Clipper work, etc. — like many trends have come full circle and are once again a popular style and back in demand!

“Old-school barbershops are opening at a fast pace and it is now a trade that young men are interested in once again. Barbering is the oldest ‘legal’ trade in the world and it’s great to see it is alive and well! The future looks good; barbershops are here to stay and will continue to be the centerpiece of every community.”

*Author Larry Ray, a resident of North Columbia Heights and the nephew of barber Jack Kuhn of Springfield, Ohio, recently received the George Washington University School of Law’s 30 Years of Excellence in Teaching Award and recently assumed his position as a public member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee to the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Affairs (LGBTQ).

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.