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Beards and Barbers and Budapest

Hipster beards may be all the rage, but good old-fashioned barber shops are also making a comeback in Budapest, as David Holzer discovers. 

The Barber Shop Budapest Museum.

It was the queue of young guys with beards outside Barber Shop Budapest on Dob utca that first intrigued me a year or so ago. There must have been at least 15 of them.

I didn’t have the courage to go in for a haircut myself. My idea of the perfect barber shop is one where the décor hasn’t changed for 50 years and the barber is old enough to be my father. I’ve applied this principle in barber shops all over the world with mixed results.

A barber in New York’s Little Italy almost cut my throat when I started chatting gaily away about all the mafia movies I’d seen. Another, in Tangier, Morocco, who must have been 90 and had violently shaking hands had to leave the door to his shop open while he cut my hair because there was no electricity. Once again, I almost got my throat cut.

Why do hipsters have beards? According to The Telegraph newspaper, researchers at The University of Western Australia have discovered hipsters have beards because men are “feeling under pressure from other men and are attempting to look aggressive by being more flamboyant with their whiskers.”

That makes sense. It also explains the vogue for pumped up Arnie arms and full sleeve arm tattoos that make every second guy below the age of 40 look like Popeye. But for someone of my vintage, for whom beards were inherently scruffy things worn by hippies and teachers, the notion that a man would groom his beard and rub in beard balms, waxes or oils kind of defeats the object. If the whole point of beards is to look macho, why make them smell like a beard bordello?

Enormous Growth 

I realize I may well be in the minority here. There’s been an enormous growth in the men’s skincare and hair product market in the past couple of years. In 2016, it was estimated that the gents grooming industry would bring in USD 21 billion in revenue. Men have fallen in love with spending time and money on their appearance. And the Barber Shop Budapest company is in the right place at the right time.

Barber Shop Budapest was started by the three Gellei brothers with their father around four years ago. The Gellei family is a hairdressing dynasty that dates back to 1930, when grandfather Gellei took up the scissors and straight razor. But the idea for a traditional barber shop was born in Melbourne, Australia where oldest brother András was a Golden Crown award-winning hairdresser.

After ten years in Australia, the brothers grew homesick for Budapest. They decided to bring everything they’d learned about traditional barbering in Australia back with them, and opened their first shop here in summer 2014.

I found all this out when I interviewed Aaron, the youngest of the brothers, at the new Barber Shop Budapest at Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca 64, which has a neat little barbers’ museum attached. A charming young man with an impeccably styled beard, Aaron told me that his father designed the museum and all the shop interiors. The mix of classical wooden furniture, artistic displays of brushes and razors and memorabilia is nicely done.

When I mentioned how I’d first noticed the shop on Dob utca, Aaron explained that “the queues of foreigners saying ‘How cool is this?’ started very soon after we opened. We were definitely in the right place at the right time, if not necessarily for Hungarian guys. Social media also helped us because guys could show us pictures of the style they wanted using Facebook and Instagram. When the whole beard thing took off in Hungary, young Hungarian guys started coming in too.”

Classical 

Why did Aaron think hipsters had beards, I wondered? “I don’t really like the term ‘hipster’,” Aaron said. “Our shops aren’t hipster. They’re classical. We’re reviving the idea of a place where gentlemen can retreat while being groomed and talk about football without having to listen to female chit-chat. We get enough of that at home. And we’re adding the whole customer service thing we picked up in Australia – offering a customer a free cold beer, for instance.”

Today, there are five Barber Shop Budapest hairdressers in the city and five more across the country, but that’s as big as the empire will grow, according to Aaron. The company is now focusing on training young dudes to become barbers and cut hair and beards, wield straight razors with aplomb and use hot towels. There’s a barber shop academy above the shop on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky. Demand for a proper shave with a straight razor is growing again after it all but vanished in the 1980s because it was believed that straight razor cuts spread the AIDS virus.

Barber Shop Budapest is also making sure it takes advantage of the male grooming boom. Their own Australian Barber brand is excellent, and the shops also stock a wide range of high quality gents’ products, including American Crew. They do gift packs and vouchers as well.

After speaking to Aaron and seeing the care and attention that have gone into creating an open, well-lit and friendly environment that nods to the classic barber shop, I’m a convert. I’ll be heading to a Barber Shop Budapest hairdresser for my next haircut, shave and hot towel treatment.

Find a location near you and see what’s on offer at www.barbershopbudapest.hu. 

Famous Hungarians you didn’t know were Hungarian #23 

When I first saw the name Gellei, it rang a bell but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Then I realized I was thinking of Uri Geller. Was the psychic spoon bender Hungarian? Of course he was. Although he was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Uri’s father was Hungarian-Jewish. His mother, incidentally, is supposedly a distant relative of Sigmund Freud. Uri is proud of his Hungarian heritage and speaks the language well. I wonder if he can bend a straight razor?