Time snips away at barber shopsIn a city where businesses open and close frequently and without notice, Lee Jeong-cheon, 57, is something like a living piece of history, quietly snipping away in his Seoul barber shop for the past 35 years.
As each year passes, he becomes more disgruntled. Not because he is getting older or losing hair. “People die someday. Everybody does,” says Mr. Lee with a dismissive gesture.
No, what bothers him is that he believes that his little shop in the Mapo district, called Myeonseong Barber Shop, will close the day he is put to rest or he isn’t able to give his loyal customers a haircut anymore. His profession is dying.
Just as the country’s numerous mom-and-pop stores have given way to chain stores, the old-school barber shops, with their rotating white, blue and red neon sign, have lost ground to the ubiquitous beauty salons. In time, it seems likely that barber shops will only be remembered in movies such as “The President’s Barber,” a movie about the life of a barber in the 1960s, which will open in April.
On a recent morning, Mr. Lee had only two customers. Meanwhile, just two blocks down the street, Leekaja Hair Bis, a beauty salon chain with 80 stores around the country, is full of waiting customers, with more calling for appointments.
Even though a hair cut is cheap ― 5,000 won ($4.10) for kids and 7,000 won for adults ― and comes with a free shave, more customers are choosing to pay two or three times more at salons.
“There was a time when people would only go to barber shops to get a haircut. You know?” says Mr. Lee, gazing into the distance, as if he could see the glorious old days of his profession.
“If you were a guy, this is where you would come,” says the barber, pointing his finger at the cement floor.
According to Mr. Lee, back in the 1970s and even the 1980s, beauty salons were a rarity.
“There were very few, and then those who operated were often run out of a family house. Not really professional,” says the barber with a snort.
Now the numbers have reversed, with beauty salons found in every neighborhood in Seoul. Today, according to the Central Barber Organization, about 6,700 barber shops are left in the Seoul area. In the mid-1990s, there were 7,800 shops.
Kim Mi-hyeon, an official with the Central Barber Organization admits that barber shops are fighting an uphill battle. “This is a dead industry,” says the official.
Barber shops’ heyday
It wasn’t always like this. When Mr. Lee started out as a trainee at the Hyeobshin Barber Shop in Daechang-dong, business was booming. The trade was not something to be taken lightly, he recalls.
“For a whole year, I did nothing but wash the hair of customers. The next year, I was allowed to work on the kids’ heads. In my third year, they let me finally work on the adults,” says the barber. Besides washing hair, he had to perfect his skills in honing a razor and sharpening scissors.
Hyeobshin Barber Shop had nine workers, including himself, each with different responsibilities: two were in charge of shaving, two washed hair, two who were called “little teacher” cut children’s hair, two full “employees,” and the owner.
“To be called an ‘employee’ meant that you were complete. It took me three years to get there,” says Mr. Lee.
He remembers how he had barely time to eat lunch because of all the customers. On a good day, he would serve 30 to 40 people, and the shop had to hire an extra hand on weekends.
“In the early 1980s, on weekends, I would make up to 40,000 won per day. Construction workers’ daily pay was 8,000 won then. Life was good,” Mr. Lee says.
Today, barber shop customers tend to be older, from a generation that grew up with few choices as far as getting a haircut was concerned. Nowadays, with fewer and fewer schools requiring a mandatory crew cut ― the norm for Korean middle and high school students till the 1980s ― and Korean youths freely experimenting with hairstyles as well with color, barber shops aren’t very appealing to the younger generation.
“I can’t get the hairstyle that I want at a barber shop. It’s not very cool,” says Park Dong-myeong, a high school senior.
In addition to coming across as old-fashioned, barber shops also have to battle another negative image, one that’s more seedy. At more disreputable barber shops, women are available for services other than haircuts, and unlike legitimate barber shops, what they’re offering aren’t free shaves.
“We know it’s a huge problem, but it’s the government’s job to crack down on them,” says Mr. Lee.
Asked how to distinguish those barber shops that offer unlawful services, Mr. Lee says the ones that operate in the basement or have dim lighting inside with partitions are most likely suspect, but he adds that there are no guarantees.
Without being able to easily distinguish barber shops from the outside, those who want an honest haircut find it’s just easier to go to a beauty salon. “It’s just not safe, and you don’t know what’s going on in there. That’s why I send my kids to a beauty salon,” says Kim Suk-heui, a mother of two elementary school kids.
Resistant to change
Lee Seung-heui of Leekaja Hair Bis says the barber shops have only themselves to blame for their decline. “When it comes to service, people ask for more. They want to go to a place that looks nice, offers them beverages and their favorite magazine, and that includes guys. Barber shops have failed to grasp that. It’s very simple.”
Most barber shops are now a one-man operation with spartan interiors. Mr. Lee’s shop is barely big enough to hold four or five people, with towels hanging from the ceiling and the occasional spider web in the corner.
Kim Mi-hyeon, with the barbers’ organization, says plans had been drawn up to upgrade the interior of traditional barber shops, but with a contracting economy, those plans were abandoned.
Lee Jeong-cheon’s attitude toward his job has never changed, and it just might be that this sort of stubbornness has sealed the fate of the profession.
“When I get youngsters, there is only one hair style: a short and clean look. That’s the way it should be. Most of the time I talk them out of growing their hair,” says the barber.
Shaking his head, he adds, “And dyeing it. I only dye white hair.”
He has compromised a little by putting hair gel next to the mirror, but unlike hair stylists, he lets his customers do it on their own.
“If you ask me, that stuff is no good,” Mr. Lee says. “How can it be when it’s like glue? When the wind plays with natural hair, now that’s real beauty.”
by Brian Lee