Goodbye to a wonderful barber

Fred of the Noyes Boys has died, the Daily reports. Manfred Booge of the Noyes Street Barber Shop was 74 and one of my favorite people in Evanston. He and son Manny ran an amazing shop, one that flew by word of mouth in the first weeks of freshman year and then kept you coming back by appointment for the rest of your time in the city. 

I’d try to describe how Fred ran the shop, but Justin Conroy did so just fine for the Daily in ’99. The brief’s stuck with me because Manny later e-mailed for the text. Sparing you my fanboy reply, here’s Conroy: 

Entering the establishment at 916 Noyes St. is like entering a whole new world: the multi-colored barber’s pole, old-fashioned barber chairs, the smell of fresh after-shave, the sounds of 1930s music. Not to mention the barbers, who sport classic Johnny Unitas crew cuts and practice their art with detailed and cautious movements. For 20 minutes you step out of the hectic world of classes and into the calm confines of an old-style barber shop… And for $11, you can get the smoothest haircut you’ve  ever had. 

Yes, the greatest haircut in Chicagoland was $11. You felt good after.

You always came back from the shop with a story, about the greatness of the straight-edge razor, about old times in the neighborhood, about the conversation that jumped off the radio. Just looking through old e-mail, there was the time Nate waited for Fred to get back from surgery, the time Manny and I talked about Halloween laws and sod for half an hour, the times Amit came home with stock tips, the time the barbers remembered him when someone mentioned him to them a year after graduation, the later time he dreamed about Fred, Manny and a third barber singing, the time Fred and I talked about grubs and it took me forever to realize they were a lawn problem and not a heart condition.

Fred had a gentle manner but a professional touch with the scissors and razors, and the shop’s appointment book in a way channeled who he was and how he ran his business. You felt you had a place there.

Evanston’s fortunate Manny has so many of his dad’s great qualities and has added his own style to the mix. I link Sara Peck’s Daily story again and quote the lede because I want you to read it that much.

On the last Saturday of his life, Fred Booge did what he had done for the past 55 years: He went to work at the Noyes Street Barber Shop.

Though he had retired six years earlier and passed the shop’s ownership to his son, Manny, the German-American barber continued to work every Friday and Saturday, even when a broken pelvis confined him to a walker. The last haircut he gave that day was to a Northwestern alumnus — one of the regulars — who brought his young son along. While Fred snipped and shaved, Manny cut the little boy’s hair on his final day of work with his father.

Home of the Fazal fade

Barbershops! I saw the Noyes one on Sunday, and it looked like it was still rolling along. It was closed at the time, but I got the vibe. It also made me happy to see an article in the Los Angeles Times, full of bloggable things today, about a Pakistani barber named Mohammed Fazal. Last month’s earthquake left him without a roof or walls, but he has begun cutting hair amid the rubble.

Note on barbershops

There’s apparently this barbershop in Chicago named Fannie’s. Started in 1961, the son of the original owner is now changing the place, adding big-screen TVs and putting the barbers in hot pants. Women barbers, I assume. The Chicago Tribune has a story on this move, but the story’s behind the site’s paid-archive wall.

Anyway, I’m not sure what to make of this concept. I don’t think it’s my style. But I do support barbershops in general, so maybe even this place falls under that umbrella. To each his own, as long as it’s a barbershop. As far as Chicagoland goes, I stand by the Noyes Boyz.

For all Noyes Boyz fans

Amit e-mails about Evanston’s greatest barber shop:

“i had this ridiculous dream last night. i walked into the Noyes barber shop, and there was some popular song playing (i can’t remember which one.. maybe a britney spears one). I then I see Manny, Fred and the 3rd barber singing along with a song, trading off different parts like a medley or something…. ridiculous!”

Finding a new barbershop

Finding a new barbershop is never easy because we who demand a barbershop are a picky bunch. No salons, no “hair stylists,” no Hair Cuttery for us, thank you. We will take men of code and distinction, the select few with degrees and certificates in the art that binds us. They are barbers, and we are their proud customers.

Why go to the effort? Especially after moving to a new land, why take on the search? The simple answer is trust. For all its human value, the hair on your head might as well find its roots in your soul. It is a reflection of our age, our lifestyle, our habits — good or bad, and our self-image. “How do I want to present myself to the world?” you may ask one random day. Start with your hair. It will be the first thing the world sees of you.

Barbershop customers understand this dynamic. And they are willing to go the ends of the earth to find success within it. They will scour phonebooks. They will grill friends, co-workers and townspeople. They will go a-walkin’ to the horizon line — because somewhere between here and there a striped pole must twirl.

And with this pole will come comfort. There will be air conditioning, a chair with a foot rest, the smell of aftershave, and a television or radio playing. They will also be reading materials. After waiting a minute or fifteen, a friendly man will come to you and ask you to follow him. You will follow, and he will ease the weight on your head.

Cloth across chest and lap, paper around the lower neck, razor up the sideburns, razor above the ears, razor on the back of the neck, more precise razor along the edges. Scissors on hair up top, scissors on hair up top. Comb hair down over forehead, scissor this hair. Spray with water mist, mess up hair, re-comb hair over forehead, re-cut. Comb hair into position, re-cut. Remove paper from neck, razor hairs on back of neck, powder on neck. Brush away powder, brush away hair on face, spin chair to face mirror, hold small mirror in back to see neck. Spin back to front, remove cloth.

The finest barbershops will go even further: straight-edge razor around the edges, aftershave and maybe even a quick scalp massage to make the hair sit well. It is because of all of these potentials that I miss the Noyes Street Barbershop. The Noyes Boyz — Fred, Manny and Ben — fufilled the hair hopes and dreams of many an Evanston young man. Mine were certainly included. Their service and dedication was top notch. (And continues to be, only I am not there to enjoy it.) Every evening you could count on the barber chairs turned 45 degrees in the direction of the door, with a clean white cloth atop each of the seat backs.

Moving away from their shop was honestly one of the more difficult aspects of leaving college. They were the city, they were the neighborhood, and they welcomed me and many other transplants into their world. My challenge upon leaving school was to find a suitable substitute. Never has “suitable” been so skewed against hope.

But yesterday afternoon, here in Decatur, GA, I went searching. Work and Internet research had turned up little in the preceding days. A neighbor had recently found a barbershop, but his review was mixed. He liked the haircut they gave him, but his wife said it made him look like a chipmunk. Talking, he remembered a barbershop where he used to go, one just blocks from our houses. They did the straight-edge razor and sometimes the scalp massage. But now it was twenty-plus years in the ground.

Resorting to the online phone book, I looked up the nearest shop and grudgingly began to drive there. The last time I tried a random shop, I ended up in an abandoned block of downtown St. Petersburg. On that barbershop, the door would blow open if it wasn’t locked, and there was a vacuum apparatus to suck the hair off your neck. The barber was a loud woman who normally only cut hair on Tuesdays, but ever since Lucky the Barber had a heart attack, she had to work Saturdays too. My neck burned all the way home. My head felt violated for days.

With this experience laying heavily, I drove to the Brass Chair Barber Shop. It was located where everything seems to be in the South: across the railroad tracks and past the Waffle House. The shop made its home in a small row of businesses, and the pole was clearly visible on the Swiss-style front. (That sounds too National Geographic, like I’m putting on a few Yankee airs, but hopefully you get the picture.) Inside the barbers were watching Crocodile Hunter.

My barber stood up and sauntered over, pointing to a chair for me. He had well-cut hair. After I sat, he flung the cloth halfway across me and didn’t bother pulling it the rest of the way. But I faced a mirror and could watch him work, which was good. I noticed some Cal Ripken memorbilia in a cabinet next to the mirror. Because the lessons of his legend adapt in so many ways, Cal Ripken is always encouraging. Look at him for the going-to-the-barber perspective, for instance. For fifteen years, he apparently never received a haircut bad enough to make him miss a game.

Cal had me upbeat. “Normal haircut?” the barber asked me. “Yeah, medium to short,” I told him. “It’s real long right now.” Those words were the last we said until the haircut was done.

The barber was a nice guy; he just wasn’t much for the talking. He grumbled under his breath when a customer accidently kicked the runoff bucket under the air conditioner, but temperature issues are important at a barbershop. If this dopey customer somehow messed up the bucket under the air conditioner, the cooling unit itself might be next. Things happen.

Finishing up, the barber took the cloth off me and I brushed the hair of the half of my lap that had never been covered. (Maybe it’s a socio-cultural thing. Maybe in the South your lap is nobody’s business but your own.) The total came to $12, which is a reasonable price, and with the tip the total came to $14. “You come back now and see us again,” the barber said. “Yes,” I replied, drawling a bit on the affirmative, “I sure will.”

My hair felt comfortable walking out, and I had felt comfortable sitting in the chair. It wasn’t a Noyes Boys experience, but the man did a good job. And for the little he said, he was friendly enough. It was a quality haircut and haircutting. When the time is right in a month or so, I’ll be going back there.

For all of the thought and effort needed to get the right haircut, the payoff is relatively simple. You feel good. You feel rewarded. You realize that you got even more than you gave. These are the pleasures of the barbershop and the barbers inside.

Providing each knows how to use it, a friend with scissors is as valuable as a friend with a gun. If you do not forsake him, he will not forsake you. When his service is at your service, his powers will give you strength.