An Ode to Barber Shops Around the World

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Last Updated on April 26, 2024 by Audrey Scott

Ah, the local barber. A ritual, a comfort of home.

Not so for me. Every haircut is a new adventure: a different country, a new language and yet another man with scissors (or God forbid, clippers) who has his own ideas about style.

During a recent ear-lowering interlude in Leon, Nicaragua, it struck me that barber shops are less about haircuts and more about history and culture.

Barber Shop in Nicaragua
The Barber of Leon.

An Ode to Barber Shops

I'm rather drawn to barber shops. Not because of vanity (rarely do my results echo “excessive pride in one’s appearance”), but because of their social relevance.

From Nepal to Nicaragua, barber shops offer a clip and a chat. Fathers take their sons, whose first visits invariably feature the fearful, tearful haze of a universal rite of passage.

Weather, life, family and politics. These topics are barber shop currency, forming a link in the chain of traditional social networks. Barber shops are the modern day remains of the oral tradition; their pace rings of a bygone era.

The barber shop feels like a dying breed. Fifty and sixty year-old men will continue to ply their trade until their hands can no longer clippity-clip with the scissors. But who will replace them when they are gone?

The Barber of Leon

No place better typifies the old-style barber shop than the one I visited in Leon, Nicaragua. It exuded a cluttered, timeless aesthetic that, if not examined closely, could be mistaken for a barber out of any number of old towns, from Havana to Siracusa.

Barber shops around the world
A regular client gets his hair cut at a traditional barber shop in Leon, Nicaragua.

Framed original newspaper clippings from a John F. Kennedy visit (Kennedy Ganar Simpatica – “Kennedy Wins Sympathy”), a grade-school drawing of a large knobby-kneed bird downing a frog, prominently placed NO FUME signs, and a string of permanently dust-encrusted plastic tarantulas and angels dangling from the ceiling.

The rule it seems: once something goes up, it never comes down. A living time capsule.

I’m thankful for places like this. Maybe that makes me stuck in the past. Maybe that makes me nostalgic. Maybe that makes me old school.

Or maybe I just like to get my hair cut.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

13 thoughts on “An Ode to Barber Shops Around the World”

  1. The panorama shot is too cool. How’d you do that?
    If this was really an “old style” barbershop it wouldn’t say Unisex on the sign. When I was a kid, a barbershop was a male bastion and a beautyshop was strictly female. I remember going to Sal’s where there where mirrors on opposing walls and the reflections went on almost to infinity.
    Now, being follically challenged I just run a clipper over my own head but I do miss the special comradery of the barbershop.

  2. Regarding the panorama, we have a fisheye lens (ultra-wide angle 8mm). We take a series of shots around an axis. Then, we use some special software to “stitch” the individual images together. We will write a post about all this shortly. A number of readers seem to be interested in this.

    The “Unisex” sign is simply failed marketing and brand extension. Many shops in Central America have slapped “unisex” on their signs in order to expand business.

    I urged Audrey to get her hair cut as well, but it didn’t work. These places are still all guys.

  3. The unisex tag under the logo really caught my eye!! 😛 This is the first time that I have seen such thing… well, maybe it’s really that common than I think… I have visited Baraaza and I have been sharing my experiences about the places that I travel…

  4. Love that panorama shot. Awesome. It is true, there is no place like the old style barber shop, it really gives you a feel of the community. I always seem to cut Dave’s hair on the road, but I think we will have to frequent them more often.

  5. Ah, the classic haircut! Never has anyone make it sound so special, until now! Love that panorama shot!

  6. ahh, that is a panormic shot? I’m quite a newbie photos but would really love to know more about this culture… I could add this new culture in my Baraaza so I can also share this with my friends! 🙂 hehehe That is where we collaborate on all our travels… I only carry a basic camera but looking forward to buy a new cool one… 🙂

  7. Prompted by this photo and article, I returned recently to the spot of fond childhood memories, the barbershop. Gone was the half draped, large plate glass window and the striped pole. The darkened window, now home to a ceramic shop whose heyday was long past, was cluttered with dusty figurines; a striking contrast to the bustling activity of its predecessor, more than a half century before.

    Barney and Andy were its proprietors. Brothers Italiano or perhaps Siciliano, they clipped, snipped and shaved their way to perfection. Oversized mirrors graced the walls of the shop. Worn linoleum covered the floors. Mismatched chrome and wooden chairs and a lone, well worn leather couch made their way around the perimeter. Chatter filled the air.

    Equipped with a not so good but passing report card and a religious holy card for this achievement, the barbershop was my first stop on the last day of school. I ordered a “porky” in preparation for the long summer
    vacation. This style, requiring that only about a half inch of hair remain, needed only the electric clipper. Fast and efficient, I was ready to go in about five minutes.

    The introduction to the barbering process began years earlier. Too small to reach a satisfactory height, I was placed on a well worn, shiny board that straddled the arms of the overstuffed barber chair. Next came the
    covering sheet. With a few pumps on the long handle that brought the hydraulic chair to the desired height, we were ready to go. All of this was happening under the watchful eye of my reassuring father. At the conclusion the sheet was removed, a large powdered brush dusted the back of the neck, a few drops of hair oil were applied and the finish produced a slick, combed look. Wow!

    Several years later a right of passage began with a removal of the board. Subsequently when the barber asked my father – sideburns, George? – and he nodded affirmatively, I felt that first step away from childhood. Sideburns, those sculpted spots around the ear required shaving and the use of after shave; refreshing but burny. Yikes. What then seemed like nothing more than the removal of a few locks obviously left profound impressions. From dusty statues to some of the fondest childhood memories in an instant.

    Thanks, Barney and Andy.

  8. Thanks everyone for the compliments on the panorama shot. More coming.

    @Dave and Deb: I don’t think I’m daring and courageous enough to have Audrey take to my head with clippers. Good on you for making the haircut a family affair.

    @jen: I’m a fan of the under-appreciated…and that includes barber shops.

    @Don: Thanks for the thoughtful memory. “Sideburns?” Always a crucial question. And I remember those elevator boards. The powder (the stuff in the green metal can), and the blue antiseptic juice for the combs, too.

  9. @Barry: If Audrey and I did team haircuts on me, I suspect our marriage would suffer. Visits to barber shops on the road…all about the experience and story. They’re also a fascinating window on culture and a source of funny travel stories, most of which may not even have to do with the haircut. Happy travels!

  10. I know I’m waaaay late on commenting on this post, but serious respect for getting a cut there! Whenever I travel I always cut my own hair, it’s much easier than you might think! Except the back of your head, that bit gets tricky and I usually get Laura to do that bit…we almost never have an argument…almost.

  11. @Daniel: Mmmm, it does sound kind of fun, almost persuaded to give it another go! Next year we’re heading to Japan, Myanmar and India, so I could be in for some varying styles there! IF I do get a haircut, I will hold you responsible for the outcome!

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