Making the Cut on Campus


On the morning of April 10, a Thursday, David Fowler, owner of the Duke Barbershop, went to work in the basement of the West Union building as he has for the last forty-four years. By noon he had trimmed sides, thinned shags, snipped sprouts, flattened tops, shortened burns, and, generally, as they say in the trade, "lowered ears."

Shave and a haircut: 128 bits ($32)

 Shave and a haircut: 128 bits ($32). Photo: Les Todd


He did it all with a routine flourish of the hands--soft, silver-haired hands, nicked, stabbed, sliced over the years. (The right index finger was speared by a pair of dropped scissors; the left thumb cleaved with a straight razor.) His customers seemed pleased. Nearly everyone gave himself the once-over, peering into the mirror, turning for the profile glance, straining to glimpse the hair on top: "How do I look from a plane? What do short people see when they look at me?"

When the West Union was the hub of student activity, the barbershop was right where it needed to be; all day, barbers would see students who stopped in on their way to the Dope Shop or the University Store. They could keep up with the trends and anticipate emerging styles. But ever since the Bryan University Center became the place to hang out, Fowler says, "We've fallen out of the loop. It's hard to know what's in."

According to Johnsie Sowder, a cosmetologist in the shop, the "Caesar"--short and combed forward, and gelled--and the "High and Tight"--the tough Marine look--have both been hot for about three years now. "But styles can change overnight," she says. "Remember how everybody had bowl cuts like Christian Laettner? Then he graduated and, poof, they were gone."

The typical life cycle of the barbershop, Fowler says, is like the haircuts they give.

A shop might gain a reputation for cutting hair a certain way, get popular, do well for several years, and then, just as quickly, fall off the map. "You lose your edge, so to speak."

Back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the haircutting world fell on very hard times--long-haired times. After decades of flat tops and crew cuts and clean shaving, people all of a sudden wanted to grow hair everywhere and long enough to put flowers in and bandanas around. They didn't want haircuts and they didn't want war and the more hair you had, it seemed, the more against the war you were.

But even this ideology had its innocent victims. Thousands of barbers were left with nothing to cut or shave. Nobody even cared about split ends. It was a barbershop depression, the worst since 296 B.C., when the Roman emperor Hadrian, in an effort to hide lesions on his face, made popular the big beard look. Before a well-groomed Nixon declared "peace with honor," 3,500 barbers in North Carolina lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, though, Duke haircutters were busy. "We were one of the very first unisex places around, so we not only weathered the storm, we did the most business we've ever done," Fowler says. "We had appointments booked six weeks in advance. And this was right when men started using hairspray. There was that fella Val Sassoon or something. He was the hot thing. He made it popular for men to use hairspray, so we got that crowd, too."

These days competition is stiff. There's a Haircuttery on Broad Street right across from East Campus. There's a place called Studio R on 15-501 and a salon on Buchanan. But there is no place that is quite as true to the traditional combination of clipping and chatting as the Duke Barbershop, with its aftershave aroma, its golf-on-TV tranquility, its weightless commentary on the weather and baseball games and fishing. Fowler does not play music in the shop. He prefers conversation. "That could be 90 percent of success in this business," he says. "Just listening to people and having the ability to talk about all kinds of things with them."

The Art and Science of Barbering, published in 1956 and issued to Fowler during his barber-school days, is kept on a shelf in his shop. It includes instructions in various techniques, safety measures, and the art of conversation: "You will find that most people are interested in talking about themselves, so talk about the customer's interests rather than your own.... If the patron is an elderly man, ask him, 'Do you remember the first automobile?' or 'Did you serve in a war?' If the patron is a mother, try one of these: 'What kind of work does your husband do?' or 'What kind of electric refrigerator do you like best?' "

The book had nothing, though, on what to ask a man by the name of Terry Sanford, longtime Duke president, and, for an even longer time, politician. "He did most of the talking," says Fowler. "He would come in with one hand in his pocket and a little grin on his face. And when he was politicking for senator, he would tug at my coat and whisper, 'Dave, who's that who just came in?' I tend to remember names, so I could help him out with that."

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