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How Straight Razor Shaving Made Me a New Man

BY: EDITORIAL TEAM | 5.19.2017 |

The man holding the razor blade to my neck was named Joe Caccavella Jr., and I liked him because he was friendly, talented, and, despite the blade, not trying to kill me. Instead, Joe Jr. was giving me my first straight-razor shave.

A third-generation barber and the son of Joe Caccavella Sr.—the owner and founder of Joe's Barbershop in Chicago's Logan Square—Joe Jr. is a champion of the methods used in old-school barbershops, especially straight-razor shaving, a.k.a hot-lather shaving, which he calls a "dying art."

It's still alive at Joe's, though. The shop has been doing the classic men's shave since 1968, hewing to the same labor-intensive process that once made the practice a popular pastime for guys. Here's what you get to do if you plunk down $20 for a ticket back in time.

Take in a retro men's barbershop vibe

The throwback feel at Joe's isn't some calculated ploy. You get the sense that its decor is the way it is not because of recommendations from a retro design firm, but because the shop never saw a reason to update its antique cash register, Formica barber's chests, or eight-track player set to an endless Sinatra loop. Joe's is also small, with just three barber's chairs and a clutter of Harley-Davidson signs and pomade cans that lend it a decidedly masculine vibe.

Relish a hot-towel treatment

Once I'd settled into the barber's chair, Joe Jr. laid a hot towel on my face. The thinking behind a hot-towel shave is that the treatment will warm the skin and open up the pores. In my case, it also lulled me into a leisurely state of mind that seemed in tune with the easygoing atmosphere.

After removing the towel, Joe Jr. massaged hot lather into my skin in circular motions. The purpose of the lather is twofold: it cleanses the face of any debris and dead skin, and it raises the hairs to make for swift and fluid removal. The spiraling hand movements made my face go lax, and the lather made it tingle.

Chat about life—and Sinatra

Sinatra crooned through the eight-track all the while. When I was 21, he sang, it was a very good year. That was enough to inspire an oration from Joe Sr., who was cutting hair in the next chair over. "Enjoy your youth," he said to the customers waiting their turn. "I started cutting hair when I was 21, right after I got back from Vietnam. Now I'm 66. But I still love this song."

Banter is a big part of the old-school barbershop's charm, and Joe's did not lack for dialogue. As Joe Jr. prepped my face, he expounded on marriage, beards, and what makes for an authentic barbershop. "Any real barbershop should have wood panels, [mounted] fish on the walls, and at least one Italian man," he told me.

 

Get the Closest Shave of Your Life

The hot towels were making me feel like I might doze off, but I forced myself to stay awake. I wanted to feel the blade mow my skin, to experience the thrill and twinge of danger I thought would come from having a straight razor pressing against my face. Joe Jr. smeared shaving cream along my cheeks, mustache, chin, and neck, and finally brought out the blade.

I've never been one for machismo, but as the sharp blade grazed my skin, I could almost feel my Y chromosomes flexing their muscles. Joe Jr. moved the razor deliberately along the grain, pulling the skin taut while explaining that the tighter the skin, the better the shave. This was the first part of the shave, a "once-over" to remove the bulk of the hair.

During part two, the "close shave," Joe Jr.'s artistry was on full display. He whittled away the remnants of my mustache, pared down stray patches of whiskers, and shaped my sideburns to my exact specifications. A cold towel, a couple palmfuls of Bay Rum aftershave, and some talc powder stirred me back to the world of the wakeful.

Walk Out a New Man

I hadn't seen—or felt—my bare face in years, and both sensations were jarring. My fingers practically slid off my chin when out of habit I went to stroke it. My skin felt soft enough to poke my finger through. I looked younger and felt it, too. Later that night, I tried to buy a drink and a bartender asked to see my ID. It was the first time in years that had happened.

That's what surprised me. It turns out straight-razor shaving isn't just about maintenance; it's an indulgence. Joe Jr. calls it a "manly facial" and tells me he has beardless clients that come just for the experience. If I'd heard that yesterday, I'd have called them crazy.

Groupon staff writer Scott Hirsch originally wrote this article, which has been edited since its publication.

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