Vancouver barbershop’s straight razor shaves a relaxing treat

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With nothing but his nose peeking up through a steaming towel wrapped around his face, Tim Sullivan’s body seemed to gently melt into the reclining chair.

In the chair beside him, barber Juan Naranjo carefully moved his hands along Eustacio Valencia’s head with a straight razor in short, precise strokes.

“I used to just shave myself, but I like this better,” Valencia said. “It’s cheap, it takes longer for it to grow back, and you just feel a lot cleaner and better.”

Shaving with a straight razor may sound like something out of an old Western film, but it’s quietly making a comeback in Vancouver and Portland.

In part that’s because the technique has been deemed “cool” by the hipster scene across the river, but it’s also catching on because that sort of shave is a nice, relaxing treat specifically for men, said “Big Rick” Conn, master barber at Royals Barber Shop, 2824 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.

“For a guy, the closest thing, it’s like a woman’s facial,” Conn said. “There’s no feeling like it.”

Under the towel, the silent Sullivan raised both thumbs up in agreement.

“It’s one of those once-a-month things you should just get for yourself,” Conn said.

In Portland, a straight razor shave, which takes about 25 minutes, can cost up to $60. Conn charges $15 — and he wants to keep it inexpensive so his customers can try it, he said.

His goal for the small two-man barbershop is to make it a guy’s place. He cranks rock music, serves beer and tries to create an old school culture for his customers.

“Back in the day you had the men’s barbershop and the woman’s salon next to each other, and they each got to do their own thing,” Conn said. “Here, it’s kind of like a man cave. We like it that way.”

With that in mind and a cocky grin, he added that there will be no straight razor leg shaving for women at the shop.

“There’s a point where you have to draw a line, and that may be the line,” Conn said with a laugh. “When I went into this business I thought ‘I don’t want to deal with women, I want to create a place for men.'”

Slowly unwinding the towel, Conn prepared his straight razor, popping in a new disposable blade.

Old school straight razors are a single piece of metal sharpened with a leather strop, but with sanitary requirements, professional barbers can’t use them on customers anymore.

The single-use straight razor blades work the same, though, Conn said.

“The thing about (home) disposable razors is that they might have five or six blades, but it’s really only the first one on the surface doing the cutting,” Conn said. “With a straight razor, you can control the blade more, and you can use it at several angles. It gives you a very close shave.”

Many barbershops use a straight razor on the back of the neck after a haircut, but few do facial shaving because it’s harder and more time consuming.

Conn learned how to do it in barber college and mastered the technique through an apprenticeship with Bob Lutz at Arlo’s Barber Shop, 309 E. 15th St., where he worked for several years.

Arlo’s doesn’t do straight razor shaves anymore because of the time involved, Conn added.

“It’s time consuming, but it’s really about the service,” Conn said. “We want to go back to that model. People in the old days did things the right way. Today everything is supposed to be fast food, fast paced, processed. In those days it was all about service, about the experience. We’re going back to that.”

The barber industry itself has a bit of an old-time feel. Naranjo recently graduated from barber college and is apprenticing with Conn to learn the trade — and how to create a more service-based business, he said.

“Too many people are in too much of a hurry nowadays,” Naranjo said. “That’s why I like this place. You can take the time, get to know people. I believe in having a good conversation with a client. We want to know their names. And we don’t even use a computer.”

Occasionally, the pair get men in the shop who can remember the days when straight razor shaves were more common. The technique started to go out of fashion in the 1960s and ’70s both because men’s styles changed and because the popularity of disposable razors grew, Conn said.

“We do get some older guys in here, especially older veterans,” Conn said. “And they’ll say ‘you do the razor shaves? I haven’t had that since 1937!’ We love that.”

The customers apparently love it, too. Conn collects old straight razors as a hobby, and he has some dating back to the 1800s. Many of them were given to him by clients.

“A lot of customers have given them to me and said ‘it was my grandfather’s grandfather’s blade,'” Conn said. “That’s pretty cool.”

He also collects the old brush and soap containers used with the antique straight razors.

Most barbershops, including Royals, don’t use those anymore and have switched to liquid soap and a lather machine, he said.

Still, the smell would be familiar to old-timers. Royals uses a classic bay rum soap that’s been made by the same company since the early 1800s, Conn said.

“The real secret to a good shave though? That’s the hot towels,” Conn said. “The steam opens the pores on the face and makes the hair stand up. That gets the shave that much closer.”

A smile spread across Sullivan’s face as Conn finished up the short, careful series of razor strokes across his cheeks.

Asked if he felt relaxed enough to go home and sleep, Sullivan said no.

“Actually I feel like I could go run a marathon,” Sullivan said. “He’s right. There’s nothing like it.”