Dave Johnson’s hair is slicked back in a low pompadour. It’s shiny with product and combed back from his face. Think Elvis’ hair-do, but not quite as high. His baby-face is perfectly trimmed with facial hair. His pressed khakis and loafers are topped off by a white jacket, from which a colorful sleeve of tattoos emerges.
Next to him W.D. Barry wears baggy shorts and sneakers, a hat cocked on his head, which he assures people is not to hide a botched haircut. He too wears the clinical white coat. He snips deftly and dangerously near the ear of his customer, who sits in one of the two brown barber chairs bought at an auction. They used to sit in a barbershop in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1930s.
“Details,” “GQ” and motorcycle magazines are fanned out on a table. Whiskey bottles line a shelf.
Jackson’s Whiskey Barbers is a men’s club house, and although there isn’t a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the door, the shop gives off the aura of a man cave, a place women just don’t venture.
The feel is a “certain manly nostalgia,” Johnson says.
The shop, which opened in Jackson in February, is known for its retro feel, chill ambiance and an offer to store clients’ favorite whiskey so they can pour themselves a drink while waiting for a simple trim, or a requested “Mad Men” style hair makeover.
Despite its nod to yesteryears, Johnson and Barry wanted to attract a younger crowd to the barbershop. It’s become a place where people come in and get information on what the fish are biting, how the trails are riding and the latest service industry gossip and gripes.
The place often becomes like a small house party, says Nick Lufkin, a regular customer, who walks in one afternoon, a case of beer in hand which he puts in the fridge for later.
Sometimes people would rather be here than at the bar, he says while waiting for his turn in the chair. Lufkin, who people at the shop call Mufkin after the local newspaper misspelled his name – something he growls about to any reporter who approaches him – didn’t think at first Jackson needed and could support two barbershops. But now that Whiskey Barbers is open, he says he doesn’t know how the town survived with just one.
A lot of people, Barry says, cut their hair at home.
Barbering is not exactly a booming career path. At 36 and 42, Johnson and Barry are considered young for the profession. More people go into salon work than barbering, leaving the profession dwindling. It takes 900 hours of schooling for certification, which allows barbers to use straight blades for facial and neck shaves. In barber school, they don’t learn to perform perms or color hair, where a lot of the money is at in the business.
The niche aspect was part of the appeal for Johnson and Barry. For years Johnson worked as a bartender. He wanted to do something different, and to own a business. He’d thought about opening a tattoo parlor, a place that was social, relaxing and made patrons leave looking better than they came in. He contemplated a bar. He doesn’t remember how barbering first entered his mind, just that it did, and it made perfect sense. There was something quirky and romantic about barbering.
“I’m a renaissance man,” he said. “And barbering is a dying art form.”
Johnson didn’t know anything about cutting hair. His only experience was the ill-fated attempts most kids make on their own hair. Johnson attended barber school in Boise, Idaho. By the second week he was ready to quit. Course work, which included classes like anatomy, was surprisingly hard. Working two jobs tending bar while in school, he often came to class smelling of alcohol. His classmates started calling him “Whiskey,” and urged him to stay in the program when he considered quitting.
When he started to see the impact a haircut could have on a person, he knew he’d made the right career choice. Students practiced cutting hair on volunteers, sometimes homeless people.
“They come in looking like a street guy and leave looking like they worked on Wall Street,” Johnson said. “That’s a cool feeling to totally change people in an hour.”
When Johnson finished school he went to work at Teton Barber, Jackson’s long-standing barbershop. He worked there for more than a year, learning, he said, more than he ever did in school. So excited about his career move, it was all he talked about with friends. And one friend listened.
W.D. Barry was working at a sign shop and in the restaurant industry. He felt like he’d hit a ceiling at both jobs and stagnated. When he heard Johnson’s excitement about barbering, he quit his jobs and enrolled in school. I’m going to barber school, he would tell people. Of course you are, they often replied. He said it was one of those things that was so outlandish, so quirky, it actually made perfect sense
Tom McElhinny looks forward to his monthly haircut at Whiskey Barbers. Satisfied with the relaxation and the hot neck shave, he started frequenting the barber shop more often.
“This is what haircuts used to be like 50 years ago,” McElhinny says from the chair one afternoon. “Anywhere else, I’m in and out in 10 minutes.”
Barry and Johnson think a haircut should be a stress reliever in a person’s day.
When the cut is finished McElhinny admires his hair in the mirror before walking out of the shop, so pleased with his cut, he forgets the hat he wore when he arrived.
“There’s just nothing better than a haircut,” Johnson says.
Well, maybe a little of your favorite whiskey to go along with the cut.
Whiskey Barbers isn’t just a nickname for Johnson. Lining a shelf in the shop are bottles of Jameson and Maker’s Mark, with names scrawled on labels in permanent marker. People store their whiskey in the store and when they are waiting or hanging out, can pour themselves a drink.
“We felt a way to get people in here was to make them become part of it,” Johnson says.
Barry and Johnson have also adapted their business to the Jackson man, one that might not very often use a comb.
“We got to make it look good when it’s jacked up and messy,” Barry says.
Salons can make a haircut look great when styled. Then when you leave you can never get it to lay the same way without product and tools, Barry says.
“It’s more of a real haircut,” Barry says of the barbershop cuts. “We don’t use smoke and mirrors and hairdryers. We mold it to the head.”
Plus, going to the barber is much more comfortable, a client says from a chair. “You go to a salon and you just feel … weird,” he says. “I’m mean, ‘cause you’re a dude. At a salon.”
Just because they don’t perm or dye, doesn’t mean there isn’t an element of style in a barbershop haircut. Barry and Johnson tout their “Mad Men” haircuts, recreating the vintage look of characters on the popular TV show, like Don Draper and Roger Sterling. People really do sometimes ask for them, inspired in part by the popularity of the show, but also from the feeling of the barbershop where it’s easy to imagine Draper sipping whiskey while getting his hair trimmed, Johnson says.
Most people, however, simply say just to cut it. The guy in Johnson’s chair shrugs when asked what he wants. Something simple, Johnson figures. Once Johnson gave the client a pompadour similar to his own. But he isn’t really big on hair product. And the most important thing is knowing the customers and giving them what they want, Johnson says.
Although, Johnson says as an aside, “I think he didn’t like it because he got tired of telling the ladies, ‘no.’”
Whiskey Barber takes walk-ins or appointments. Visit whiskeybarber.com or call (307)-201-1549 for more information.
— Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Hey, great article. I’ll have to make a point to stop by and get a haircut. Gotta say it though, the crowning touch to the article was when I looked at the photos taken by Bradley J. Boner – “click to enlarge”. Priceless! Lee Lofgren/Lander
If I lived in Jackson I would get my hair cut nowhere else. And a lot more often than I do. Great story. But then you had me at “whiskey.”