What’s the difference between a hairdresser and a barber? About $20.
It’s a joke Happy Coxford shares with the men who fill the waiting bench of the Oak Bay Barber Shoppe. They all laugh and exchange a few stories, but there’s truth in jest.
Coxford has been searching for a new hire to fill the second chair of his shop on Estevan Avenue – though he’s given up now. The trouble is, Coxford is one of the few remaining old-school barbers in the district, and his true boys-club location is one of the last where men go to get a trim and, well, let off steam.
“Most guys don’t know the difference between a good hair cut and a bad one, and they don’t care. They come in here because their wives told them to get a cut, and their wives will be the ones to say if it’s good or not,” Coxford says.
What sets a barber apart, in reality, he says, is an ability to use clippers and understand the complexities of a short cut. Coxford makes it look easy as he steadily buzzes through a client every 15 minutes or so, all the while chatting and joking with the room full of waiting men. Yet a careful eye can witness his intricate hand, the varying levels he uses with the clippers and his casual but exacting approach to each hair. Of course, there’s an ambiance of openness that comes along with the cut.
“I don’t let children in here, and do you know why that is? Because I don’t want their mothers in here,” he says with a laugh. “And I don’t cut women’s hair … we’d have to spend the first 15 minutes just talking about how it would make your cheekbones look, and I don’t have time for that.”
What Coxford might not tell you at first is that he left school at 15 and started cutting women’s hair in his 20s, after a short stint in construction work. He shifted into barbering in 1984, in an effort to find “the easiest blue-collar work I could,” he jokes. But, now 55, it’s clear Coxford takes pride in a job well done – a job that gets its success, he says, from 30 per cent location, 30 per cent haircut and 30 per cent personality. The final 10 per cent could just be laziness.
“Even a bad barber will get a strong clientele base if he stays somewhere long enough,” Coxford says an old barber friend used to tell him.
For the last five weeks, Coxford has had an ad out looking for a barber to join him. He had applications from hairdressers who he wouldn’t consider, calls from a few barbers he wouldn’t interview after talking to on the phone and one hairdresser who almost made the cut but wasn’t a good match after a few weeks. This is not to say barbers don’t exist. Shops from the hip Victory Barber & Brand to the long-standing Jimmy’s Barber Shop downtown offer a similar idea, save a few pin-up girls and brash jokes. It’s the culture that’s fading as much as the style, and what Coxford offers is becoming hard to replace.
“I’m not all that fussy, but you want to get along with who you’re working beside,” he says. “Truthfully, the guys in my shop would weed someone out faster than I would.”
Funny enough, Coxford’s quest only came after having to replace his last colleague – Jacqueline Miller – a woman who became well inducted into the boys’ club. Originally a hairdresser herself, she learned the clippers, “cleaned up” Coxford’s well-decorated space and even developed as strong a following as his.
“Jacqueline’s been cutting my hair for the last four years here, so I’m taking a bit of a risk today with Happy,” teases Mike Gavas, a 15-year client.
As Coxford snips through Gavas’ curls, he talks about how he worked alone the first 10 years of his shop, back when it was on Oak Bay Avenue. Then, how he got lucky with Miller and a few other barbers, and how her help let him work shorter days so he could care for his wife who fell ill for nine months. She’s better now, and “doesn’t want to be cared for anymore,” but with 22 years of business in Oak Bay, Coxford says he only wants to work five-hour days.
“The biggest challenge of working alone is that you don’t get a lunch,” says Coxford. “It’s a cozy shop and we just do walk-ins, but if you have to wait for an hour, I’ll entertain you.”