A barbershop that’s a cut above the rest

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A barbershop that’s a cut above the rest


Hairdresser Lee Nam-yul cuts a customer’s hair at Sungwoo Barbershop, which was founded by his grandfather in 1927. The business has survived thanks to a combination of high quality service and a clientele that includes politicians and prominent businessmen. By Choi Jeong-dong

Hairdresser Lee Nam-yul, 62, says things were better back in the old days.

“In those days, we were always crazy busy around the Lunar New Year holiday. Four hairdressers had to cut more than 100 people’s hair - all in one day,” Lee recalled. “It was like that for 10 or so days and by the time nightfall came, we were physically wrecked.”

Lee has been a hairdresser for 46 years now. At 16, Lee became an apprentice under his father and took over the family business in 1984. Sungwoo Barbershop, which lies within Manli Market in Yongsan District, central Seoul, was founded in 1927 by his grandfather.

With this long family heritage, Sungwoo Barbershop has been featured in many articles and television shows over the years. Lee said that after about 1980, however, he saw his customer base shrink suddenly.

“There was a sudden burst of competition because many ex-criminals, who had learned how to cut hair in prison, were starting to open up barbershops after they got out,” he said.

Lee added that at the time, barbershops had also started providing illicit sexual services, which caused many regular customers to start going to hair salons or bathhouses to get their hair cut in order to avoid those kinds of shops.

Even so, the shop was bustling with action when I visited on a recent afternoon. When I arrived, Lee was cutting hair and said he’d been so busy that he’d skipped lunch.

The building housing the shop looked quite humble - it is a rebuilt thatched-roof house that is more than 200 years old.

The scene inside the shop, however, was miles away from other such barbershops around the city that seem vacant for most of the day.

When asked how he rates his skills as a hairdresser, he answered without a moment of hesitation that nobody in Korea could beat him.

Lee says that with first timers, he takes care to memorize a particular haircut on the customer.

“You can’t be a hairdresser if you are stupid,” he laughed.


Sungwoo Barbershop, which lies within Manli Market in Yongsan District, central Seoul, is housed in a thatched-roof house that is more than 200 years old.

Many of his more than 200 regulars are famous politicians or business leaders. Roe Hoe-chan, former representative of the Democratic Labor Party, has visited the barbershop roughly every 20 days for around seven years. Around two-thirds of the regulars come from regions outside of Seoul.

To maintain top physical form for his job, he says he never drinks alcohol or smokes, worried that those habits will make his hands tremble. He adds that he doesn’t eat meat in order to keep a clear head.

Every morning at seven, Lee goes to the shop, cleans up and greets customers. He closes the shop every night at nine. Despite the shop’s popularity, Lee says he hardly takes on more than 10 customers a day because every haircut, when “done right,” takes more than an hour. Even so, the price for his haircuts is still affordable, at 10,000 won per person. A shave and shampoo costs an extra 10,000 won.

Over the years, Lee says he has received numerous offers to work elsewhere - including a handful of offers from top hair salons in wealthy southern Seoul. But he said no each time.

“I wanted to keep what is sacred,” he said.

By Choi Jeong-dong [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]

Related Korean Article [중앙선데이]

“여기서만 84년, 이 모습 오래오래 지키고 싶어요”
3대 가업 만리시장 성우이용원 정·재계 유명인들도 단골손님

“옛날엔 설이 다가오면 정신 없이 바빴죠. 이발사 네 명이 하루에 100명도 넘게 깎았으니까요. 거의 열흘간 그랬으니 저녁마다 녹초가 됐습니다. 요즘은 설 대목이 아예 없어요. 1980년께부터 손님이 갑자기 줄었습니다. 교도소에서 이발을 배운 이들이 개업을 해 경쟁이 심해진 데다 퇴폐이발소가 사회문제가 되면서 손님들이 목욕탕이나 미용실로 흩어져 버렸어요.”

서울 만리시장의 성우이용원 이발사 이남열(62)씨는 옛날이 좋았다고 말한다. 일도 열심히 하고 돈도 많이 벌었단다. 하지만 그의 전성기는 아직도 끝나지 않았다. 기자가 방문한 날도 점심을 거른 채 부지런히 가위를 놀리고 있었다. 파리만 날리는 대부분의 옛날 이발관과는 사정이 다르다.

이씨는 유명 인사다. 10년 전 방송에 출연한 뒤 여러 언론에 잇따라 소개되면서 전국적으로 알려진 이발사가 됐다. 언론이 주목한 이유는 3대를 이어온 장인이기 때문이다. 27년 이씨의 외할아버지가 현재의 자리에서 이발소를 연 이래 그의 아버지를 거쳐 이씨가 가업을 잇고 있다. 무려 84년이다. 이남열씨는 열여섯 살 되던 65년부터 이발을 했다. 46년째. …

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