Close Shave

Will men ever elevate a mundane chore into high art?

One of my first writing gigs was a magazine column called “Perspicacity.” Nobody, including me, knew what this meant, although the dictionary defines “perspicacious” as having acute mental vision or discernment. My job was to apply such selectivity as it related to new stores, i.e., discover them and tantalize readers with a sparkling yet reliable description. I don’t know if I came to love shopping because of the column or loved the column because of shopping, but since 1979 I’ve enjoyed the quest.

Although I no longer carry a reporter’s notebook at the mall, even a sign announcing an upcoming opening still gets my pulse racing. When the new high-end men’s grooming-accessories store, The Art of Shaving, opened at the Fashion Mall, I was there before the paint dried. The small shop is fronted with seamless glass, the interior inlaid with dark, rich paneling and accented with black-and-white photographs of men who look like Clark Gable. Gorgeous display cases contain an array of shaving supplies: razors and cake soaps and brushes. Ah, the brushes, set upright or on fancy chrome stands, their soft bristles made of pure badger. A pretty lady attends the tufted leather counter, and spa services are available in the back. It smells good in there, not good like at candle or cheap bath-supply stores, but good like in memory-evoking, mild, manly, musky good.

Although a retro atmosphere pervades the space, I didn’t see older gentlemen, the type who want to shave like they used to in the ’50s. The men frequenting the establishment are hipsters, with their skinny jeans, square black glasses, and scarves wound stylishly around their necks.

Marketing experts say the best ideas for new products tend to come from need. While I can’t imagine men longing for $200 dark wood–handled straight razors and $38 lavender aftershave balm, or $110 shaving brushes to slather around fragrant $45 discs of soap, the cool factor of the store trumps practicality. The most successful trick of smart retailers is knowing what we want before we know it ourselves.

For me, the store rekindles the most precious memories of my father, who passed away when I was 47, the same age he was when I was born. He was an old dad, as dads go; we didn’t attend father-daughter dances or pitch softballs in the backyard. He was a meticulous shaver, though, much like the kind The Art of Shaving caters to. Every day I would perch on the commode by the sink in the pink-and-green–tiled upstairs bathroom of our house and marvel at the painstaking ritual.

First there was the brush, which he moistened and sloshed around in a mug of soap, longer than necessary, theatrically working up a rich lather. The Old Spice aroma was soft, if a smell—vanilla, rum, sandalwood?—can be described that way. Then he would push the suds onto his face as if he were sponge-painting, until every shaveable inch was covered. Next he slipped a double-edged Wilkinson blade into the steel razor, allowing me to twist the base until the lid closed. Each scrape was magical, the way his face shone through perfect stripes, how he reached the stubborn places on his neck and nipped the edges of the moustache he wore his entire adult life.

I was there for inspection, offering my cheek to rub against his, checking for rough spots. The final touch came when he shook a splash of clean-scented Mennen Skin Bracer into his palm, rubbed his hands together, and slapped his cheeks. I never tired of the comic grimace from the sting of alcohol on tender skin.

Every year for his birthday, I gave him a drugstore pack of blades and a bottle of aftershave. If I was flush with cash, I’d buy a new razor, too. And every year, he acted as if the gift were a surprise, just what he was wishing for.

After his death, I kept his shaving brush, mug, and the last cake of soap. I sealed the treasure in a plastic bag to preserve the fragrance, and when I feel especially lonely, I breathe in the familiar aroma. For just that moment, he is back.

Can it also be that his style is back, that once again men will elevate a mundane chore to high art? If you believe the chain store’s website, they will. Among several black-and-white videos, we visit The Gentleman Shaver, who appears in a ’50s-style bathroom, straight razor in hand. His female companion commands the mirror for her own grooming, forcing him to view his reflection in the metal soap dish, tissue box, and trashcan lid. She eventually backs him into the tub, mid-task. Like most women, I am attracted to him, as well as to the Old Soul and the Incurable Romantic. But more than that, the trend gives me hope.

Maybe if males shave like gentlemen, they’ll also hold open doors and help a lady on with her coat. I saw a man on a downtown street wearing a wool felt fedora with a little feather in the hatband and was struck by his debonair appearance. I’m not quite ready to pull out my white gloves, but you never know.

If what’s old can become new again, maybe teenage girls will return to dressing like they are 15, not 25. Perhaps we’ll ride bikes with baskets and upright handlebars, write letters with pens, walk to school, eat dinner at home. Wouldn’t it be something if picnics came back in style, if we simply interacted socially instead of through social networks, talked instead of texted?

Dad’s birthday is this month, on the 15th. He would no doubt object to the $50 price tag on a heavyweight safety razor, but were he still with me, I know where I’d shop for his gift.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.

>> The Art of Shaving was an IM Best of Indy pick in December 2011. See that entry here.