When Walt Ferrebee talks about flattops, he beams like a man who has just seen his firstborn.

"They're coming back. I bet I hadn't cut more than a couple in 20 years, and now the high school kids are coming in here asking if we can do them," he said.

"Of course we can do them. We are the experts on razor cuts," said Ferrebee, who owns Buckingham Barber Shop in Arlington.

Short hair may be back in fashion, but many barbershops are struggling to survive. Unisex hair styling salons, staffed with cosmetologists who are trained in color and permanents as well as cutting hair, have changed the marketplace.

In 1976, Virginia had 4,559 barbers and 329 barber apprentices, according to the National Association of Barber Styling Schools. Today there are 3,201 barbers and 38 apprentices. There are almost 10 times as many cosmetologists in the state.

Last year, only three persons participated in a state barber apprentice training program conducted in Northern Virginia. And only one person has called about barber instruction since Christmas, according to James Fowler, an apprenticeship training program specialist.

"We have an obligation to provide the training, but we can't afford to train barbers one on one," he said.

"Our enrollments are up in other areas, including cosmetology. Trades like carpentry and electrical work are far more lucrative than barbering and they are attracting more young people," Fowler said.

Cosmetology students are trained to cut hair with scissors and clippers. Barbers are trained to use razors, clippers and scissors and say they can use clippers more effectively than cosmetologists. Barber schools today are also training students to give permanents.

Long hair and high rents for shops have also taken their toll on the barbering profession.

"Back in the '60s, you could set a clock by some of our customers. People just don't get their hair cut as frequently now," said Gus Smallwood, 73, who has cut hair for 55 years and works part time at the Arlandria Barbershop.

"When I started in 1932, a haircut was a quarter. In 1936, we got a big raise to 35 cents," he said. "Some people would say things have really gone up, but it's harder than ever to make a shop go."

Smallwood and Bob Williams, owner of the Arlandria Barbershop, charge $7 for a cut.

Both men have had to relocate during their careers. Williams owned another shop in Crystal City but was forced to move when the building changed owners. Smallwood had a shop in the basement of Arlington's Glebe House, but "kept getting flooded out."

Williams, 46, said he does not know what he'll do when Smallwood and his other part-time barbers retire. "I've got lots of loyal customers, but I can only cut so much hair by myself," he said.

Smallwood said: "The secret to the trade is pretty simple. If they {customers} like you and they like the haircut they get, they'll come back."

Sarah Cuneo, a member of the state barber board and owner of Man's World in the Twin Bridges Marriott Motor Hotel, said barbers today need to offer a variety of services such as manicures, color and shoeshines to survive.

"Men want to be well groomed and look good, just like women," she said.

Unlike many area barbershops, her shop schedules appointments. A haircut at Man's World costs $18, but includes a shampoo, blow drying and "instructions on home hair care."

"I don't know what can be done to save the profession," said Cuneo, 46. "Barbers have to keep up with the times."

The increase in female barbers is one sign of the changing times. Some shops cut only men's hair, but that practice is declining in Northern Virginia and across the nation.

Seventy percent of the country's barber students are female, according to Edwin C. Jeffers, executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards.

"Even 10 years ago, that wasn't the case," he said.

Barber Willard Edwards, whose shop went unisex five years ago to stay in business, likes having women in his Falls Church place. His daughter, Teresa Barr, a licensed cosmetologist and a barber, "is my right arm." His prices range from $8 for a standard cut to $50 for a permanent.

The Belleview Barber Shop in Alexandria may be one of the few around that aren't looking for barbers. Tam Nguyen, 32, and his wife Huong Le, 31, Vietnamese refugees, bought the shop two years ago and have added barbers, some of them members of her family. They attended barber school in Wheaton; there is no barber school in Northern Virginia and only four in the state.

Jeffers said the future of barbering depends on the ability of barbers to recruit people.

"It used to be that 90 percent of the people who entered the trade were referred by a barber. Maybe their uncle was a barber or someone they knew talked with them about the business and helped them get started," he said.

Robert Baumgardner, director of the apprenticeship division of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, does not expect a surge in recruitment.

"It is not just the longer hair but the economics that is driving people out of the business," he said. "I have worked with barbers for 23 years and I have heard over and over about the long hours and the lack of medical benefits. Those aspects are going to have to improve. Cosmetologists charge more and make more, and more people are enrolling in that program."

Despite the increasing costs of operating a shop, Jeffers said, "Things look better for barbers than they have in 20 years. The shorter hair styles will revitalize the business."

Evelyn Brennan Brown, assistant director of the Virginia Barber Board, is not anticipating an increase in barbers and will recommend to the board that the barber examination be given quarterly instead of every two months.

"It is difficult to justify the expense when sometimes we are traveling around the state and only testing one or two people at each location," Brown said. "A combined cosmetology/barber examination is a definite possibility. We currently have no plans to do that, but lots of states are going that way."

Said Jeffers: "Some people may picture barbershops as smoke-filled places with antlers on the walls and older men swapping stories, but that image wouldn't fit most of the barbershops and hair centers in this country today."