Business is good at Walls Barber Shop, a 1940s-vintage cuttery with seven handsome, brown leather-and-chrome barber chairs--the kind they don't make anymore.
But if Harry M. Walls can't find himself two new barbers pretty soon, he says he'll have to hang up his scissors after 16 years of owning his own shop.
"I cannot find barber help," Walls said, as his muscular forearms worked for a shine on a well-heeled customer's brown wingtips. "No barber help nohow. Wherever I turn, no barbers."
Walls, 56, who started learning barbering when he was a 14-year-old shoeshine boy in Tampa, Fla., is now part of a vanishing business--the old-fashioned downtown barbershop, the kind where you can still hear the snipping of steel scissors and the stropping of razors, instead of the whine of a blow-dryer.
Barbering has been so overwhelmed by hair-styling in the past five years, according to hair professionals, that the kind of traditional barber sought by Walls has been largely replaced by the barber-stylist who practices the new-wave trade of "hair design."
Aaron Whitaker, the founder and owner of the D.C. Barber Academy, says that he has not had a barbering student in at least two years.
"I suppose it is a profession that youngsters don't take an interest in anymore," said Whitaker, 52. "It started dying when the long hair got in style in the 1970s" and hair-styling caught on.
"In my case, the students just don't show up," Whitaker said. In fact, Whitaker, like Walls, is looking for a barber at his shop at 3817 14th St. NW, "and I can't find nobody, either," he said.
"Everybody can't study computers. Somebody's got to take up barbering," he added.
Many people are still taking up barbering, but more than two-thirds of the barber-stylists are opting for jobs at unisex or beauty parlors because these shops frequently offer big commissions, according to D. Ann McNutt, director of the barber and cosmetology division of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400.
Many newly licensed barbers will take further schooling to become a cosmetologist because hair-dyeing, streaking and performing permanents are more lucrative, McNutt said. In some cases, stylists will receive 50 or 60 percent of the customer's fee that may be as high as $80 for a permanent.
Traditional barber shops have trouble finding barbers because "not too many barbers are knocking on doors," McNutt said. Barbering had lean times when the "hippie movement" meant no haircuts, she said, but the advent of "the preppy look" means frequent haircuts and few barbers looking for work.
Walls Barber Shop--with the familiar revolving barber-pole and a sidewalk sign that proclaims, "Best In Town. Haircut/Shave"--is two blocks from the White House, at 814 15th St. NW. It is in the giant Lafayette Building that houses the Export-Import Bank and many other government offices.
Harry Walls' landlord--the General Services Administration--doubled his monthly rent last March, to $1,200. Walls' other major cost is his payroll of two full-time journeyman barbers, Bob Rogers and John Jones, who together have 20 years' experience in cutting hair for Harry Walls.
With his high rent, Walls decided the only way to survive is to generate more business with at least two more barbers. Surrounded by an ever-increasing number of office buildings, Walls' shop is almost always busy, he said.
"I advertised for barbers," Walls said, emphatically. "I called the D.C. job bank. I called the schools, the barber schools. And I called the barbers' union. . . . Nothing. And I have checked everywhere.
"Every morning when I wake up, I feel like a man waiting for the electric chair," he said, "I don't know how much longer I can take it. No help, no business."
Walls' first barbering job was at the now defunct Ewell's on 14th Street NW. ("There's a dirty bookstore there now," he noted.) Walls opened his own shop on May 1, 1967.
"I bought it from a white owner . . . and when I bought it, there were 35 barber shops downtown. And now it's less than 10," he said.
"Blacks used to own the majority of barber shops downtown in the 1940s and back further," Walls said, "Now I am the only one."
Whitaker said traditional barbers, black and white, continue earning a living in many city neighborhoods, but most downtown shops, especially the black-owned, were pushed out of business by rising rents.
Walls' voice rises when he discusses the impact of the blow-dry and razor-cut hair designers. "Barbers are an endangered species. In the next 10 years, you're not gonna have no barbers," he said. "You won't be able to get a haircut. You'll either have to be unisex or go to the suburbs."
A middle-aged shoeshine customer who had been reading a magazine while Walls talked, nodded vigorously in agreement.
Hair styling, loosely defined, involves the shaping and arranging of hair, often using razors rather than scissors. Barbering is mostly just cutting, although many stylists claim to give barber cuts and many barbers say they also style.
The problem faced by barber shops like Walls' is that they have not adjusted to new styling trends, according to Jon Lesko, a champion hair-stylist who teaches at the Academy of Professional Barber-Stylists in Wheaton.
"The reason why this barber is having trouble is that the moment he says 'barber' he limits himself to just the old-fashioned way of cutting hair," Lesko said. "You can't advance in anything unless you get into the new techniques. . . . Otherwise you become stagnant."
Lesko said his academy graduates about 70 barber-stylists yearly and has a waiting list for its seven-month training course.
Graduates, he said, "would not be inclined to take a barber position that did not involve styling as well." He said his graduates usually work at styling salons where they receive perhaps 50 to 70 percent of the price paid by the customer.
Many earn $300 to $500 a week, he said. By contrast, Walls said his starting pay for a barber would be about $150 or higher with commissions.
As Lesko sees it, "The average man is turning back to the old days of being the pretty one. He wants more attention. He would like very much to be able to have the identity of the handsome one again. And to do that, he needs this styling service.
"The barber shop isn't vanishing. There is still the identity of the all-male shop," Lesko said, "But if the shop doesn't direct its thinking and decor in the direction of the combination, unisex-type thing, then it is difficult" to draw a sizable clientele.
After more than 30 years cutting hair, Walls is not convinced that he needs to broaden his orientation. Walls insists that the demand for plain old barbers is still there.
Said Walls: "Don't let nobody tell you that everybody is going into styling. . . . You take a man 55 years old with less hair. He ain't going to no unisex. He wants a barber shop."