By ASSOCIATE TRAVEL EDITOR: Greg Keraghosian
“In America, they probably have to chain him down during a shave,” joked one barber in Armenian as I fidgeted in his colleague’s chair, and he may be right, although this was the first time in my life that I’d let anyone press a straight razor against my neck.
But I gladly exposed myself to sharp steel and ridicule here, and I encourage any guy to do the same if they’re in Gyumri, Armenia. Barbershop – that’s actually what they call it – has been cutting locals’ hair for 75 years, and if you thought Ice Cube and his movie posse kept it old school and funny, wait till you get a load of this place.
While Brooklyn hipsters try to simulate a retro barbershop atmosphere, this place is the real deal: its barbers, décor, and equipment remain unchanged for decades. The red-seated chairs have been there 50 years, but the master barber has been there for 60 – he’s Kachik Aristakesyan, 84 years old.
I had no plans to get a shave and I’d never even heard of the shop until I walked inside during a rainy road trip with my travel-blogging students for the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies. I fell in love with it instantly – from my perspective as an ethnic Armenian who had never been to this country, it was a living museum left over from the Soviet era, with a hand-crafted tin ceiling, chandeliers, wood wall paneling, heavily scuffed hardwood floors, a garden maintained by an elderly woman, off-duty barbers playing backgammon, and giant hair clippers that sounded like chainsaws.
But the main attractions are the wisecracking, white-coated barbers themselves, who could easily star in a Barbershop sequel – to my delight, they’ve actually seen the Ice Cube movie though they don’t speak English. It’s no exaggeration to say they know Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, better than anyone.
As a tourist I could only imagine the sense of community Barbershop has maintained in a hard-luck city still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 1988 that stripped people of their homes and jobs, followed by the breakaway from the Soviet Union. To this day, it isn’t just a place to get your hair cut – it’s a place to relax with a newspaper, catch up with a friend, smoke a cigarette, take your son, and let those old walls resonate with laughter. I saw all of this taking place that day.
Gyumri was a sort of Pittsburgh in its day – a working-class textile town with a strong cultural contribution, including famous writers and artists. It still has a major brewery and beautiful orange-and-black brick architecture in the churches and museums that remain standing from the earthquake. Barbershop also survived the quake, and it’s unchanged since its last renovation in 1982.
Aristakesyan, the master barber, told ArmeniaNow about the earthquake’s and Soviet breakaway’s effect on Gyumri two years ago:
“This giant barber shop used to serve a hundred people in one hour … Now it is the same amount only per day… where are all the people, where has our nation gone? Why did they destroy their homes, their nests and left? The earthquake ruined Gyumri in its way, what followed the earthquake, broke it, ruined, devastated in another way.”
The lively atmosphere inside the shop was anything but mournful, though. While I’m too vain to get a haircut from someone other than the San Francisco woman I’ve been visiting for seven years, I had to experience a shave here. And like hoping you’ll get roasted by a great stand-up comedian, I couldn’t wait for the barbers to make some jokes at my expense.
It didn’t take long when I sat down with David, a barber of 40 years. After he dipped a steel cup into a hot-water container and began lathering my face with his brush, he told my interpreter Elise that he’s known for giving a “glass shave,” because of how smooth it is. But he added that I had a special treatment coming my way: the “tourist shave.”
When I flinched at the ominous sound of his clippers, David told me, “I am only going to cut you seven times.” That’s seven more cuts than he gave me, though. I couldn’t believe it took me this long to get a barbershop shave: the efficiency and closeness of a straight razor blows away any Gillette home blade, and I’ll forever want a post-shave hot towel after having one thrown on my face. David did have some fun with me by crop-dusting me with aftershave while my Tumo kids giggled – I was a tourist, after all.
Despite my pleas to the contrary, David wouldn’t take a single dram from me as payment when my shave was done. But that’s not why this unexpected cultural experience was priceless.