Oakland at work: The bearded barbers of Temescal

Bradley Roberts picks up a straight-edge razor and leans over his client. The barber’s indigo sleeves are rolled up to expose a map of tattoos that continue even beneath his salt and pepper beard. With precision and focus, he slides the blade along a lathered cheek with a long even stroke. He wipes the metal edge clean and starts again.

“The element of danger is there,” Roberts says, laughing; shaving with a sharp blade requires considerable skill and expertise.  And despite the advent of disposable razors, the straight shave provides a nostalgic ritual that “just feels amazing,” he says. He shaves every client twice to make sure they get the coveted baby face effect, first letting hot towels soften the beard hairs.

But the allure of visiting the barbershop goes beyond simple aesthetics.

“Cutting hair is only 10 percent of what I do,” says Nick Vlahos, Roberts’ business partner and a born-and-raised Oaklander. Traditionally, the barbershop was an important gathering place to hear the latest community news, to be able to seek counsel, and to complain about significant others. (In San Francisco during Prohibition, it was also one of the few spots where men could sneak a drink and possibly play cards.)

Their one-room business, the Temescal Alley Barbershop, off 49th and Telegraph, is only about six months old, but is steeped in classic male grooming customs (minus the gambling).  The owners commonly offer a nip of whiskey or a High Life to a rotating cast of neighborhood characters.  Many of the clients who stop by are young, perhaps a reflection of the changing Oakland neighborhood, and a growing niche for small businesses that cater to them.

To Roberts, the return to old-school craftsmanship, whether it’s a haircut in his shop or a custom-tailored pair of pants, might also signal a resurgence of the local economy and consumer willingness to pay for quality goods.  Despite the recession, he says—or perhaps due to it—people want to know where and to whom their money is going.

At 11 am on an overcast Thursday morning, Vlahos and Roberts are holding court, an extra maroon upholstered chair planted between their stations. At the moment they are the shop’s only barbers. Hand colored photographs of Roberts’s great-great-grandparents survey a couple of clients waiting their turn, and Vlahos points to a framed black and white photo of his father leaning against a Piaggio scooter. The barber displays the same thick mop and dapper style.

Vlahos takes a moment between clients to smooth his own dark hair, studying the reflection of his neck hair in consternation.  “As long as your hair is tidy, you can have a big beard,” Roberts schools him from the background.

The two barbers have taken a challenge not to cut their beards, and it’s been a running joke since New Years. “We each have our strengths (in the beard battle)” Roberts says. “Nick has the mustache, but I have the beard.”  Vlahos smiles mischievously at Roberts. He says that he also has a secret weapon: Roberts’ wife, who might prefer that he surrenders the challenge. It’s a battle to see who succumbs to the razor first, and so far the beards are winning.

“Should I also get my mustache trimmed?” Roberts’s client asks the room. He is sporting a closely buzzed head but a lumberjack’s chin.  “I’ve been chewing it a lot lately.” Another thickly bearded and tattooed advisor sitting on the couch urges him not to: “That’s my male-on-male advice.” The other patrons chuckle and the client opts to purchase a pocket-sized mustache comb instead.

A local furniture maker in his mid 30s sits down in front of Vlahos for a trim.  He happily accepts a small shot glass of whiskey from the barbers’ wooden hutch before catching up on the latest news.  Not much is taboo in their conversations, except religion. In addition to trying to prevent customers from feeling uncomfortable discussing contentious topics, Roberts is a self-described “anarchist atheist” and he says that Vlahos is a Roman Catholic.

Despite their differences, they say they are “in it together,” and have a deep-seated mutual respect for each other, which is evident as they talk about their business. Each barber keeps a hand-written tally of customers to make sure they are seeing roughly the same number, and neither competes for new clients walking in the door. Roberts appears with a cup of steaming coffee for Vlahos, who jokes, “I spend more time with him then my wife.”

It is Roberts’s turn to barber next, and his customer hangs up a dark jacket on the metal hook before sitting down for a haircut. He looks like a young professional, clean shaven but with longish limp light brown hair that falls into his eyes. He reaches into his pocket to show the barber an iPhone picture of the haircut he envisions. “That’s a gentleman’s haircut,” Roberts says upon closer inspection, pleased with the client’s choice.

The barber reaches for his tools: scissors, clippers, a comb. The buzzing of hair provides a background track to Willie Nelson’s signature crooning. Vlahos retrofitted a black RCA Victor radio with an iPhone jack, and a mix of primarily older tunes are on constant rotation.

Roberts explains that when he remodeled the compact space, he took a cue from classic East Coast barbershops, then imbued the space with California modernity. Douglas fir runs throughout the room, and provides a warm counterpoint to the otherwise stark lines. On the magazine table, a 1971 Playboy is stacked on top of Bukowski’s South of No North. And while the classic black and white tiled floor is a reproduction from a curling photo taken in the shop where Vlahos’s great-grandfather was also a barber, a modern dappled caramel and white cowhide rug displays a brand burnt into the skin.

Originally all of the small businesses lining Temescal Alley off 49th Street were stables for horse drawn cars on Telegraph Avenue and wagon mules that went through the Caldecott Tunnel. The area was famous for blacksmiths, and was an Italian haven where English was rarely heard. Now, few vestiges of its history as a commerce center remain.

A Marine veteran in his late 80s sits in one of the shop’s restored theatre seats, waiting for Vlahos to call him to his station. He is a regular at the shop, and drives a big gold Cadillac from Alameda to see Vlahos every other week or so. He also might be slightly hard of hearing, so the barbers raise their voices to ask warmly how he is doing. When it is his turn, the vet carefully places his dark blue and gold threaded USMC hat on the empty barber chair next to him.

Vlahos arranges a striped drape over the customer’s clothes, and starts to gently buzz away his pale gray stubble. The vet used to visit Vlahos at his old shop, and once appeared for a haircut the only time Vlahos was out sick. Not wanting to see anyone else, somehow the vet extracted the barber’s personal phone number from the shop owner and called him at home.  “Well, what do you want me to do now?” Vlahos remembers the vet grumbled over the phone.

He is one among a growing number of “old-timers” who still live in the neighborhood and have started noticing the hand-painted sign outside the shop. Many of them served in World War II. Some saw action in Korea and Vietnam, and have spent time in internment camps or military hospitals. Others have shared stories of being shot down in fighter planes, or witnessing surgeries performed without anesthesia and with broken glass.

Their stories are sparks from another era, flickering reflections of decades living in the Bay. “It’s in his memories, and it will be into darkness when he dies,” says Vlahos, sweeping up remnants of the vet’s haircut before another client strides in the door.

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