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A First Cut: a salon neophyte gets the gentleman's treatment 

click to enlarge JESS CAMPISI
  • Jess Campisi
On Sunday afternoons when my hair got shaggy, my mother used to bust out the electric clippers, a pair of scissors and an old sheet to collect snipped locks. My dad, my brother and I took turns sitting in the kitchen chair as she trimmed and shaped, modifying her approach to our individual scalps and personal styles. More recently I’ve subjected my head to cheap chain joints like Supercuts, scrambling for student discounts and leaving afraid to look at my own reflection.

Gentlemen’s Top Option, a friend has informed me, is the chopper of choice for the discerning male — a far cry from both my family’s makeshift barbershop and the generic mega-salon. Nearly every man needs a cut now and then, but most guys — at least the ones I know — fear the standard beauty salon. If a man is spotted entering a wax room, as GTO proprietor Penny Jones puts it, he’s obviously looking to tackle some stubborn follicles. The male-friendly Men’s Room offers many of the same services as GTO but is located on busy Church Street, just across from Burlington City Hall.

At GTO, anonymity is a major selling point. Proprietor Penny Jones established the company six-and-a-half years ago on Battery Street but later moved to Lake Street. At this more out-of-the-way Waterfront location, men can park behind the large brick building and come in for cuts, hair coloring and massages without letting the whole world know what they’re after. Since my hair has begun to spout coarse flaps over my ears and neck, I decide to give GTO a try.

The salon is spotlessly clean, with rich, earth-tone walls and black-leather barber chairs that denote luxury. The eight-foot windows admit great pillars of light from three directions and permit an expansive view of Waterfront Park. A haircut here costs $22 – a pretty standard salon sum. But to a newly minted college grad like me, the place feels pretty classy.

I’m vaguely aware of some half-dozen other clients on my first visit, but each chair has its own private space, embraced by diptych mirrors. All I can see, as I settle into my leather chair, is the reflection of Jones as she sweeps the floor, then begins combing my hair.

“What would you like today?” she asks.

“Pretty short,” I say. It sounds lame. I’m not versed in the stylist’s lingo, but I figure my hair simply speaks for itself: unparted, no frills and — as far as I know — no significant bald spot.

Jones begins with the clippers. Buzzing quickly and confidently, she takes complete control of my skull. Like all her employees — whom she calls “my girls” — Jones is slim and young-looking, and a wellspring of energy. I’m almost embarrassed that my head is being handled by such an attractive woman — one of GTO’s unspoken draws, no doubt.

Charm aside, Jones is a determined businesswoman who has been styling hair for 12 years. Growing up around Lake George, New York, she always knew her future was in hairdressing, she says. After earning a two-year business degree at Champlain College, she studied and worked for six years at O’Brien’s Salons, where she amassed a clientele of mostly men. Anxious men, as it turned out, who were skittish about words like “styling” and “pedicure.”

Like jewelry and nice shoes, which are usually classified as feminine interests, hair is something many men don’t think about until it’s either mangy or vanishing altogether. Jones is dedicated to making men feel comfortable. Even the salon’s acronym is tailored to appeal to guys. A deliberate reference to the Pontiac GTO, it’s not only easy to remember, but also subtly suggests the raw masculinity of car engines. Jones’ theory is that men will relax if they associate highlights and facials with auto parts.

She tells me to lean my head back. I’m sitting in a different chair now, with a seat that adjusts to the arch of my back as I dip my occipital into a large, stationary bowl. Jones lathers my hair with sweet-smelling shampoo. As I stare at the ceiling, I notice that the room has a clean scent. She informs me that no chemical hairsprays or blow dryers are used at GTO, a policy that improves air quality. Men’s hair gels can be obnoxious to rinse out, but at least they are easy on the nose.

“What do you use for your hair?” Jones asks.

“Pretty much straight-up Denorex,” I say. “You know, the battery acid for itchy scalps. Sometimes I’ll steal whatever my roommates leave around the shower.”

“Don’t use generic products,” she commands. “You know how your hair gets squeaky clean when you wash it out? That’s a sign of a cheap shampoo.”

Duly noted.

We return to the first chair and Jones pulls out the scissors to refine the cut. She has a subtle style, slicing mere millimeters of wet hair with the precision of a seamstress. I ask if some hair is easier to cut than others. It’s a dumb question — the answer seems obvious — but Jones remarks that slight waves make the process easier than straight locks. Apparently my nondescript curls make for a very easy cut.

Jones finally steps back and asks what I think.

“Looks fabulous,” I say. The contours are even and meticulous; this isn’t just a shortening, as my previous barbers would have done. My hair fits my head, rounding perfectly. Unfortunately, my face looks bottom-heavy.

“Do you do beard trims?” I ask.

“Yes, we do,” Jones replies. “What would you like?”

“Well, what’s your professional opinion?”

Short,” she says emphatically, as if she’s been itching to tell me.

I came in looking like a Viking, with my threadbare red facial scruff. Jones’ electric razor efficiently mows it down. She cuts closely across my throat — I can’t help but think of Sweeney Todd —then whips the bib off my neck. Finis!

Approaching the register and the knock-out receptionist — a graduate student at Columbia University working here for the summer — I ask if GTO ever hires men.

“I’ve never received a résumé,” Jones says, seeming puzzled at the fact. A few men have telephoned her about an interview but never followed up. Five of her stylists came here directly out of cosmetology school; this is only the second job for the other two. Even her resident massage practitioner is a woman.

Just before checking out, I spot Jones’ wedding ring. I ask if her husband — an upscale professional, she tells me — comes here.

“Oh, yes,” Jones says, laughing. “He’d better.”

Before I leave, another client — a regular for nearly two years — offers a testimonial. “I get the sense when I’m here that the staff is committed to giving a good haircut. I’ve had my hair screwed up by so many barbers. Not to speak badly of barbers, but for the once-a-month I get a cut, it’s just a little splurge that I enjoy.”

I’m not picky about my hair — Mom and Supercuts had easy customers. But for a young professional like me, a real salon is an exciting novelty. Leaving GTO, it’s impossible to resist a moment’s vanity. In the shaded windows, I glimpse the clean-cut image of a gentleman’s trim.

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Robert Isenberg

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