An Interview with Chris Calabrese of Calabrese’s Barber Shop

When I moved to New York City several years ago, one of the many things I didn't have a clue about was where to get my hair cut. It’s a tough spot to be in—new in town or not, if you don't have established relationship with a barber, every cut is like reinventing the wheel. I made a few semi-successful (and very affordable) visits to Astor Hair, but I didn't find anyone I wanted to see a second time.

Luckily, I met Chris Calabrese one afternoon at Frank’s Chop Shop. For the next three years, I was all set. In addition to always giving me terrific, consistent cuts, our bi-monthly visits were a total joy. Chris hipped me to a great documentary about "noodling” (catching catfish with your bare hands), and showed me where to get the best meatball sandwiches. He recommended new reads from Sarah Vowell and good WFMU podcasts.

Sad for me, but awesome for Chris, he opened his own shop in his hometown of Keyport, New Jersey, in 2010. Chris now commutes seven minutes on foot everyday to "Calabrese's Barber Shop." As for me, I'm not back at square one—thankfully Chris connected me with a few very talented barbers before skipping town—but I do miss our sessions. As Chris reminded me in our interview, “It's hard to find a good barber. It's hard to find a good anything.” You’re tellin’ me, man. You’re tellin’ me.

BB Man: What do you remember about going to the barber as a kid?

Chris Calabrese: I really didn't like going to the barber. I went to some old Italian guys in Raritan, New Jersey, at a shop called “Razor's Edge.” No matter what I asked for I always got a flat top or a crew cut. Once I turned 13 or so, my friends and I started cutting each other’s hair or just cutting our own hair. In fact, I didn't get a haircut at a barber shop again until I started working in one. I was lucky—my first boss, Nelson, was into punk rock and skateboarding. I could ask for a pompadour and not get laughed at.

BB Man: Any trends you’re noticing for men’s grooming these days?

Calabrese: Water-based men's hair products are the new shit. I've been selling LayRite Pomade since I opened the shop. The stuff is awesome. I also get a lot of inquiries about safety razors. I think a lot of young guys have been looking for an alternative to multi-blade razor cartridges.

BB Man: Tell us about your powder company, Raritan Bay Rum Co. How did that come about?

Calabrese: One of my customers mentioned that talcum powder is pretty horrible stuff, especially when someone is constantly exposed to it, like a barber is. I did a little snooping and found out he was right. So I started making my own powder for personal use a couple of years ago. It's a healthy alternative to talcum powder. We’ve started selling it online and at a few barber shops in several states. Throw a little in your boxers or surf trunks on a hot summer day and you're set. It does smell like bay rum, so unless a lady wants to smell like her grandfather, she might not be into it.

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BB Man: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in your years in barber shops?

Calabrese: At the first barber shop I worked at in Hopewell, New Jersey, we used to cut all kinds of crazy old farmers. One old fellow that came in had what I thought was a huge ingrown hair on the side of his neck. Over the months it got bigger and bigger, until one day there was a horn sticking out of his neck. An inch-long horn. It was only there for that haircut. I'm assuming he got it removed. He didn't bring it up, so neither did I. Nice guy.

BB Man: Ooph. Speaking of ingrown hairs, can you tell us how you take care of your beard? It looks better than ever.

Calabrese: I wash it every two or three days with Head and Shoulders Classic Clean. Once a week, I shave my cheeks and neckline with an old safety razor and badger brush. I use Portland General Store Whiskey shave soap and aftershave. Killer stuff and they both have the exact same scent, which I like a lot.

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BB Man: How about for shaves at your shop?

Calabrese: I use a Campbell's hot lather machine.

BB Man: How does having your own shop in Keyport compare to working in downtown barber shops in Manhattan?

Calabrese: The best part about having my shop in Keyport, other than my seven-block commute, is being a part of a town that I love. My family lives here, I have a lot of friends here, and people are so supportive of someone local owning a business. I have people in and out of the shop all day long, just hanging out, drinking coffee, gossiping. Once in a while someone will get a haircut. That's okay with me.

BB Man: Who’s your style icon?

Calabrese: Everyone who lived in "Twin Peaks" always looked great.

BB Man: What’s your favorite part of your job?

Calabrese: I like that I make something tangible. There's a finished product that I get paid to produce. A lot of folks can't say that.

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