I can’t tell you how many times I walked right by this place – Classic Barbershop on 111 7th Street in iscussionowntown Albuquerque. I guess I never paid any mind to it, because, well, for obvious reasons, I go to the salon. I know what a barbershop is, of course, but my idea of it was fueled by the few times I watched my dad get his high and tight at the Base Exchange barbershop, during which these adorable Asian women would buzz my dad’s hair away with clippers that had a massive blue hose attached to the end. The hose, I guess, sucked up the clippings. So, as you can see, my idea of a barbershop was definitely not like how they portray it in movies or TV shows, with it having this masculine essence to it, where clients and barbers dish out shit to each other, greet each other with cool handshakes and bro hugs, laugh and talk about guy things and whatnot and leave the place lookin’ fly as all hell with tapered fades and edges that could kill.
One morning all of that changed as I walked through downtown with a friend on a mission to practice some good ol’ street photography. We didn’t have an agenda, just to explore the empty streets and see what or who we could find to photograph and possibly uncover some interesting story along the way if it popped up. We had been walking around for a while at this point and had met an artist on his stoop who gave us a tour of his studio where he made bultos and retablos – traditional relic art of colonial period New Mexico – and so we felt pretty satisfied with the day’s hunt.
On our way back to our cars, though, we passed by Classic Barbershop, but this time it caught my eye. Stooped out front and under the sunshine, with one leg propped up against the stucco wall, were two homies, in their big ass zippered sweaters and flat bill hats that shaded their eyes from the blaring sun. They were approachable and introduced themselves to me as Alex Garcia Salas and Fidel Maldonado. Their style and chill personas peaked my interest to learn more about them and the innards of the barbershop that stood behind them, so I asked if I could come back and shoot them during a busier day, to which they answered, “sure”.
I came back to Classic Barbershop about a week later, on a Friday afternoon and it took me a while to warm up to the place, as it usually does when I enter a new environment. So much was already going on too; all of the barber chairs were filled with patrons, clippers were buzzing at a million RPMs, laughter was bellowing from the shop’s acoustics, the TV had a sports game playing, a kid whose brother was getting his haircut was spending his time waiting by purchasing vending machine items like an Orange Crush soda and some M&Ms, a patron’s girlfriend was waiting in some open seating while talking on her phone in Spanish about some idioto, a babe in arm goggled at the traditional barber’s pole that twirled outside and a Mexican fruit vendor had just stopped by to take orders and deliver amazing fruit cups containing chile melon and mangos. The place was alive with energy and I was enjoying every second of its unique culture and all who felt invited to be there.
I spoke with John Gurule, age 26, who has been with Classic Barbershop since Feb 3, 2009, which makes him the longest employed barber with the joint. John has been cutting hair since 2008, when he decided to pick up a pair of clippers and practice giving haircuts to his family and friends. The trade really came easily to him, so he continued doing it through college, which helped pay for his education and all the while he built his clientele, a lot of whom are some of his old buddies from his South Valley upbringing. John told me that his favorite things about cutting hair is that it’s an art form to him, he makes good money from it and he enjoys the freedom he has with building his own business and schedule.
Fidel Maldonado, age 26, a professional boxer whose Cuban roots run deep in the Atrisco neighborhood, talked with me next. A man of few words, he told me “believe it or not, but cutting hair is a challenge to me. I get more nervous cutting hair than boxing”, as he took a pair of sheers to a kid’s head. I told the kid he probably didn’t want to hear that right before his cut. He laughed.
AJ Lucero, age 26, has been cutting hair for 6.5 years, of which he’s been with Classic for four. He explained to me how different each day is, “because I’m working with different heads and haircuts, you know?” AJ told me that the barbershop culture is a lot of fun; it’s a place where you can dish it out and take it, “but if you can’t, then this probably isn’t the place for you,” he said with a laugh.
Mark Akers, age 32, also grew up in the South Valley. Although from different age groups, he’s known Fidel, AJ and John for a long time and “that’s kind of what makes this place a family, you know? It’s that brotherly love for each other… but like family, it’s a love/hate relationship, so we fight it out sometimes, but we still got love for each other,” he told me with a grin on his face. Mark also said that the best part about being a barber is that he loves interacting with people, “all walks of life, from doctors to attorneys to the homeless off the streets – these are the people I meet nearly everyday. It’s always something new. It’s always something interesting,” said Mark.
Mark has a funny story too, about when Fidel and John almost got into a fisticuff with one of Mark’s clients who was acting a fool at the shop one day. “Little did my client know that Fidel was a professional boxer and could kick his ass,” said Mark who laughed with everyone else who listened to his story.
Then I met Ricardo Otero. He’s the oldest of the crew at 48 years old and a retiree with the City of Albuquerque. When he retired three years ago, he spent a year at home that “pissed of the wife, you know?”, said Ricardo in earnest. I told him that this was a familiar narrative, to which he nodded his head in agreement and continued with “I had a barber for 22 years who put it in my head one day that I could become a barber myself, after retirement. The plan was that I was going to learn from him, but he ended up passing away. Well, the thought of becoming a barber always stuck with me and I knew I wanted a total career change, so one day I woke up and signed up for barber college. That’s where I met Fidel and he hooked me up with the gig here at Classic Barbershop. I’ve never looked back since. I’ve been a barber for two years and I love it.”
An ongoing joke about Ricardo is about when he had a return client come by for a cut, Ricardo asked him, “Is it the same thing?”, to which the client answered, “yes”, to which Ricardo asked, “what was it?” Everyone laughed.
My day with the guys at Classic Barbershop was a great one. I eavesdropped a lot, even unintentionally, as I got up close and personal shooting all of the walks of life who entered the joint. I learned that Marble Street Brewery is the best place in town to meet single ladies, which isn’t useful knowledge for me, but it’s knowledge nonetheless. Everyone was super nice and even though I was this fish out of water, per se, everyone tried to make me feel most welcomed; AJ gave me a Classic Barbershop flat bill hat with a pink icon of the Classic C that’s morphed into a pair of barber shears, Alex offered me his fruit before he enjoy it himself and John offered me some chocolate frosting muffins someone brought in that morning. It was also one big laughing affair because of that fun make-fun-of-each-other humor, to which Fidel became victim. He loved it, you know, it was that dish-it-up-and-take-it kind of culture. I’ve since connected with these master barbers on my Instagram and I’ve linked all of the barber’s Instagram accounts above, so be sure to check out their work there.
I can assuredly say that my first time at a real barbershop was exactly how I’ve seen it in the movies and on TV shows; it had that culture, it was its own world and I got to see it for a day from the inside out and I really enjoyed it.
Visit Classic Barbershop on 111 7th St. NW Albuquerque, New Mexico 87102 in Downtown. You can walk in Tuesday through Friday from 9AM to 6PM and Saturdays from 8AM to 4PM. Keep it Classic.