Within a two-mile stretch on Bull Street, from downtown to the Starland District, three barbershops reflect the cultural landscape of Savannah: The Barber Pole, which hosts a mix of tourists and downtown businessmen, complete with a shoeshine station; Bell Barber Co., an upscale boutique with hipster leanings; and Boyz II Men, a staple in the African-American community for nearly 30 years.
No matter where you take a seat, you’re sure to find a few similarities: you can play a game of cards, find out the best pizza joint in town or get relationship advice. You can meet old friends and make new ones. For a few moments, you can escape the everyday hustle. Then, you can get back to business.
Shave and a haircut
It’s nearing 10 a.m. and downtown is bustling. It’s not quite opening time at The Barber Pole. Barber Tina Otto finishes up her coffee as a tall silver-haired gentleman peeks in through the glass door. She signals him to come inside and says, “You know we don’t open for another 10 minutes, John.”
The smirk on his face gives him away: he knows. John adds his name to the sign-in sheet anyway and slips into a seat.
Nestled on Bull Street just off Broughton, The Barber Pole has been a part of Savannah’s downtown scene since 1998 — before the downtown renaissance — when tourists were a rarer sight. As the area grew, so did the clientele, but the vibe remains the same.
“First come, first served is always how it’s been since they opened,” says Otto. “And we’re not about to change that.”
The old-fashioned shop is straightforward. Each haircut, hot lather shave and classic shoeshine is served up with a side of quick wit and even quicker service. There’s a quiet hum of technology as most patrons stare at their phones waiting their turn, but the décor and accompanying music take patrons back to a time when sitting around the barbershop socializing was the order of the day.
High and tight
For Mimi Bell, owner of Bell Barber Co., just south of Forsyth Park, barber school was a temporary solution while taking a break from college. It’s now her permanent career.
“I don’t need to do anything else, nor do I want to,” says Bell. “This is rewarding for me.”
After nearly a decade in the industry, the New Orleans native recently relocated to Savannah with her husband, who serves in the military. She noticed Savannah lacked a high-end barber that took appointments, and a few months later she opened her shop in the Metropolitan District offering services like beard sculpting, hot towel shaves, face massage and spa techniques.
“It’s a way to treat yourself,” says Bell of the close shave. “It’s all about the experience.”
Bell’s growing base often stops in after their workday for a hot towel spa treatment. The smell of aftershave spills out to the street, a 1970s Playboy rests on the side table and patrons relax into a new version of an old tradition.
A little off the top
Two miles south of downtown, chairs at Boyz II Men Barber Shop are filling quickly. An elderly customer offers life lessons in a bellowing voice. There’s almost too much chatter to keep up with, but every insight, joke and conversation shared here is sacred.
“There’s a relationship you have with your barber,” says Louis Tyson, a master barber who has worked at Boys II Men for nearly 20 years. “You wanna talk to me about something, I’ll give you advice, but you put it on the floor, it becomes everyone’s business.”
At 15 chairs, the shop is considerably larger than the four-chair Barber Pole. Here, barbers make their own hours, pay chair dues and join the shop’s social life.
“It’ll grow you up,” he says. “You’re exposed to all different kinds of things. We talk about everyday life, what’s going on in the community, in the world. If it’s happening, we’re going to discuss it.”
As subjects go, religion and politics are generally forbidden — it says so in the Barber Code of Ethics — but in this day and age, provocative topics sneak in. Still, it never gets out of hand, says Tyson. “We don’t let it. We move on.”