A cut from the past at the Aspen Barbershop | AspenTimes.com

A cut from the past at the Aspen Barbershop

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Russ Thompson’s hands work methodically, almost absent-mindedly as he speaks ” a snip here, a clip there. Slowly, astonishingly, a haircut begins to take shape.

“I love this job,” Thompson says. “It’s a job that you don’t have to take home with you. It’s very low stress. The act of cutting hair itself is very pacifying.”

Thompson, 60, has been cutting hair for 30 years. In the 1970s, he owned a salon in town ” “My Mane Man” ” one of many in a town brimming with beauticians.

Now he has forsaken the salon for something closer to a saloon. He runs the Aspen Barbershop, a modest, old-fashioned barbershop that offers residents the tradition of a quick, no-frills haircut and the ritual of sitting around, reading the paper, chewing the fat or simply doing nothing at all.

The shop, located on Hyman Ave. in Aspen’s east end, was built in the early 1970s. Not much has changed since then. The reclining barber chairs are vintage, complete with vinyl lining and shiny decals. Talcum powder and pomade line the shelves. A dusty sink idles against a wall (barbers don’t wash and dry, just cut).

Thompson himself is a throwback. Dressed in neat khakis and a blue barber shirt, his hair is a perfectly trimmed, unflappable gray.

Like with all old-fashioned trades, modernity has taken its toll on barbering. Wet shaves, which for years brought returning customers to shops as frequently as every other day, have all but extinguished due to health concerns. And in an age of power lunches and conference calls, waiting in line for a haircut has become increasingly impractical.

Still, Thompson clings to the barbershop tradition. The shop is walk-in only. On Saturdays, Aspen’s elders congregate to reunite with acquaintances. It’s not unusual for all six waiting chairs to be filled with old men, their hair almost too thin to cut. The men chatter away in the barbershop, an emblem of old-fashioned America.

On the whole, Thompson doesn’t get involved in their conversations. He likes to listen. It’s remarkable how easy it is for a barber to become invisible. Recently, a Hollywood movie had a barber as its main character; the movie was called “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

Unlike many barbers, who give the same hair cut (high and tight) whether you ask for a mohawk or a mullet, Thompson boasts of moderate styling ability, the result of training for salon work. This knowledge, however, is rarely put into practice.

“People around Aspen are so active, they usually just want their hair short, simple and out of the way,” Thompson says. “It’s mostly just blow and go.”

Thompson has three other barbers working for him part time, all women. He claims it’s next to impossible to find full-time barbers around town. Hair stylists can charge in the range of $200 for a haircut; Thompson’s crew charges $18.

Barbers, as much as they can be seen to be grandfatherly and disarming, can also have a reputation for being a dour, disaffected bunch. A notorious example was “the Bitter Barber,” a former barbershop employee who purportedly hated all things Aspen, most of all its residents, but nevertheless cut hair in town for years. When he left, Thompson said he had to take out advertisements in the local papers to announce his departure. Business immediately improved.

Thompson works only Thursday through Saturday. The rest of his time is dedicated to a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Basalt. He spends 70 hours each month canvassing door to door. Thompson says he often finds himself playing makeshift therapist at the barbershop, listening to clients pour out their problems as he clips away.

He is reluctant to speak to his clients about his religion, however.

“People come for a haircut, not a sermon,” he says.

Thompson finds the job rewarding. He enjoys the constant company, the conversation, the proximity to men filled with the confident feeling of a clean, new cut.

“People always feel better after a haircut,” Thompson says. “Well, so do I.”

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]