End of a Hair-a

Prior to 1994, I really didn’t think much about haircuts. My barber, Roger Lovett, was down the street in North Hills, and my dad would usually accompany me, as Roger was actually his barber. Good guy, old school barber shop, but really the only thing I remember was that everybody in there was older, and the place was moderately grubby. He was a good dude, and frankly I didn’t really care how my hair turned out. I was a kid.

As high school approached, and my friend Juice introduced me to his cousin, Bryan the Barber. Bryan was 24 years old and had his own shop in Reseda (nee, Lake Balboa), which he’d inherited from his father. The age proximity and my wont for independence encouraged me to give Bryan a shot at a haircut – a fade, if I remember correctly – and thus a relationship was born.

I previously never understood Barbershop Culture; in fact, I’d never even thought of the concept up to that point. But inside Russo’s Hair Styling, I found a barber that could seamlessly transition between discussions about the Lakers, Juice’s Toyota MR2 and the ongoings of the Reseda Neighborhood Council while making sure that my hair would taper just right.

As I continued my monthly appointments, our banter grew more in-depth; religion, local politics, girls – everything was on the table. And not just between myself and Bryan. The shop was always a nexus of characters, some from as far away as San Diego (“who the heck would drive up from San Diego just for a haircut,” I remember thinking at the time), some from right down the street.

Some of his clients were, like the shop itself, inherited from his father’s old client base. Dudes in their 50’s and 60’s would be mingling with collegians, and the conversation was as varied as the clientele. Blacks, whites, Jews, hispanics, Italians – men of all persuasions ambled in and out of Russo’s. Chauvinistic? Perhaps a tinge, but Cyndi owned The Back Studio, which was a shop for women tucked away in back – and the adjoining door was always open, so she made sure that conversation never crossed that line. It really is a great setup.

At times, I’d see the same people from my last haircut; other times, I’d meet interesting characters. Some sold cars or motorcycles, another played in the NFL, one ran numbers, many worked in real estate. Bryan himself was slowly entering that field as well, carefully and craftily investing in properties from Pasadena to Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks. He was always willing to share information but understood when something was private or personal. He had advice – only sometimes solicited – because he dealt with such a wide swath of the populace and had a tremendous memory that he was always able to have input on the topic. Always.

And what I liked best were that his haircuts were always on point. As my fade evolved into Timberlake-ian curls, a ‘newscaster’ adult cut and finally my closely cropped, modern look, he took care with each clip (“don’t move,” he’d have to tell me about a dozen times per cut), shave and edge. There were times the cut wasn’t perfect (“come on in, I’ll fix it – I told you you shouldn’t have been bouncing around in the chair”), but most of the time it was incredible.

And that massage. Dude had a hand massager on the counter ready to relax your neck, upper back and shoulders after each cut. I mean Bryan literally knew how to make this experience awesome. I contend that half of his clients came to him just for that luxury.

But Bryan was the whole package. Now that he is moving on into more lucrative offerings, I reminisce on the end of an era and what it means to lose my barber. My wife changes hairstylists every year or so, but I’m going on 22 years of never having anybody else touch my hair – even when I lived in Seattle, I’d coordinate my appointments with trips back to Reseda/Lake Balboa to grab a cut and some conversation at Russo’s. So yeah, I became that San Diego guy, only further. That’s how important it was to have the experience, to share the culture of a true Barbershop.

And now, as places such as Sport Clips & Floyd’s exist as ersatz Barbershops, the artifice is evident as these spots are just trying to be the local spot. But they can’t do it; it comes from years, decades, generations of experience, conversation and camaraderie that can only develop when a man has his hand on your skull for a half hour at a time.

And for me, this man was Bryan – whom I’m going to miss dearly as my barber, and I suspect I won’t be the only one. Thanks for the cuts, B.

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Russo Hair Styling, still in its original location, opened in 1956 by Bryan’s great uncle. Ownership transferred Bryan’s father in 1964. It was one of the first shops to specialize in Men’s Hair Styling. Bryan began in 1991 and closed his 25th year on March 31, 2016.

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