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New cut on an old school profession

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Chris Diaz really had about as much of a chance of avoiding the family business as Michael Corleone. When your brother, brother-in-law, mother, father, grandfather and his brother are all barbers, the odds are you’ll join ‘em, sooner or later.

“I tell people that for me it was easy to get into it,” Chris says, while cutting a stylish fade for the Southern Oregon University student sitting in the barber chair in front of him. “I grew up in barbershops my whole life, sweeping in my grandfather’s shop, sweeping in my parent’s shop. It’s always been that way.”

Chris is a barber at The Flap Top in Ashland, a shop his parents Mike and Terri opened more than 20 years ago. By taking the best of the salon experience – customer service, modern décor, a complimentary alcoholic beverage, for example – and combining it with old school classic hairstyles that are suddenly back in fashion, The Flat Tap survived the downturn in barbershops long enough to enjoy the current wave of popularity.

“Every year you learn and adapt. We’re special because of our kids. They teach us too,” says co-owner Terri, who learned the trade from her father and her uncle.

Another generation of Diaz barbers have expanded beyond Ashland into downtown Medford. Mike and Terri’s oldest son Brandon Diaz, 29, and their daughter Amanda’s husband, Pablo Villa, 32, have teamed up to open The Fellas Barber Shop, which pushes to be current and competitive by tailoring to a new wave of clients.

Flattop1“Cutting hair is the best job I’ve ever had,” Brandon said, noting he’s been working many jobs since he was 16. He points to his dad as his guiding influence.

“If my dad had become a doctor, I would’ve become a doctor and followed in his footsteps.”
The Don Corleone of this family of barbers – Brandon and Chris’ grandfather – long ago insisted his daughter learn to use clippers or starve. Terri learned the trade back in the 1980s cutting mullets and other dramatic long-haired styles. Like many women, she focused first on being a stylist so she could ride the trend toward high-end salons. But soon enough she was back to the basics of barbering.

“He was right all along,” she says of her father.

Barbering is a trade, she says, that has helped her entire family weather all the changes in the industry and the economy.

Innovation in an old profession

After years of falling out of favor, barbershops are back in a big way.

Nationwide, the cosmetology and barbering industry grew 29 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to Inc. magazine. Charles Kirkpatrick, the executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, recently told the New York Times the number of licensed barbers had grown roughly 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, which amounts to about 20,000 new barbers.

According to Forbes Magazine, “North American sales of shaving products is a $3 billion a year business.” A 2013 Salon business study and forecast “showed that like women, men are currently seeking barber shops that are close to their home, offer a wide variety of services and are competitive in pricing.” Major players are moving into the American market, opening high-end franchises across the country.

The trends can be seen throughout the state of Oregon as well. The Barbers franchise has 15 Portland-area locations. It offers shoulder massages and hot lather neck-shaves for an up-scale barbering experience. Another chain, The Bishops Barbershop, has a dozen Oregon shops, all seeking to attract the next generation of customers with its edgy marketing and appeal.

Staying in style

Without even trying to be a trendsetter, Mike said creating a unique experience for men has driven the latest innovations and changes at his shop.

Customers can enjoy a free 10-oz. cup of locally brewed Caldera beer while they wait, a decidedly modern twist. Or like Mike says, they can have a Tootsie Pop as well, a nod to classic Americana.

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“The beer is just like the girls going to the beauty shop getting a glass of champagne,” Mike says. “It’s just a little something extra. Men in particular don’t pamper themselves. We wanted them to feel like it’s a guy’s place. It feels comfortable.”

Mike credits Terri for that classic, modern combination.

“You know what it is?”, Mike says about his barbershop and its success. “My wife said something to me that really stuck. She said, ‘Why does the barber shop have to get old with the barber?’ It’s true. So many shops you see the yellow paint that started off white, the upholstery is old. ‘You have to make people feel welcome,’ she told me.”

Terri says the same thing the next day when Mike isn’t around.

“I’ve always learned that in barbershops, especially in barbershops, the shops grow old with barber,” she says.

She would not let that happen with The Flat Top.

A mix of old and new

Whereas The Flat Top itself—the hair cut, not the shop—remains the coin of the realm for a white man of a certain age, the styles of the ‘50s and ‘60s have returned, bringing a whole new generation of customers out of expensive salons and back into the barber’s chairs.

Styles always circle back around, Terri says, even with new names.

“A fade is a taper,” she says. “That’s what it’s been called. But now they call it a fade. The styles stay the same.”

But The Flat Top—the shop, not the style—continues to evolve right along with it, carving out a niche business in a declining economy. As Mike points out, barber schools across the country, including Oregon’s, have closed.

“They are not producing barbers anymore,” Mike says. “My sons are third-generation barbers. They’re rare because they get the training from us.”

But that too is the secret to business success. By weathering the downturn in popularity and steadily adapting to the trends, the Diaz Family, just like the famous fictional Godfather, has a corner on the market in this corner of the state.

“You’re never gonna get wealthy,” Mike says. “But you’re indoors and out of the elements. It’s not like construction where it’s boom or bust. It’s a comfortable living.”

A sign on the wall may as well be the business motto.

“There’s no school like old school,” it reads.

For more information, visit the Flat Top Barbershop on Yelp.

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Andrew Bolsinger

Andrew Scot Bolsinger won more than two dozen press awards during his journalism career. He is a freelance writer and author. He founded www.criminalu.co, which is focused on prison reform.