Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Shave at the End of the Galaxy, or My Afternoon at Aidan Gill

Say what you will, most men do not get to go out and have a "Spa Day" like their significant others/female counterparts.  I discovered the relaxing effects of the shave years ago at The Art of Shaving, where they still use the age old tradition of hot towels and straight razors.  Fast forward to this year, I had the opportunity to accompany my wife to New Orleans for a conference, years before she discovered Aidan Gill on Magazine Street and she was in awe of all their products, and said if I ever came down, I should get a shave.  So I called the week before our trip and set up an appointment for saturday for a shave, and needing a haircut, went ahead and did that too.  First off, the back areas are for men only, sorry ladies, you'll have to wait in the shop area and peruse the hundreds of products for men and women.  Upon arrival for my shave and haircut, I was greeted by a young man in a suit and bow tie (because first bow ties are cool, and second its the standard faire at the shop).  He confirms my appointment, and then offers me a beverage, water, soda, beer or scotch.  I opt for an Abita amber, which was handed to me in a pint glass, I can already tell this is a class joint.  I am offered a seat in the middle of the store in an antique barber chair to wait while a young man of 6 or 7 is getting his hair cut. The child's mother stands at the edge of the space between the retail section and the barbershop.  She is directing the cut from their, based on the discussion, the poor kid got a bad supercuts and needed it fixed.  I drink my beer and take in the ambiance of the old world styling of the shop.  Everything seems antique and classic.  Shortly after, about a quarter a pint of beer later, Nathan introduces himself to me and says he will be taking care of me today and guides me to the "chair", now this is THE CHAIR, the one that was in the playboy article, you know the article, the one that said this was the #1 barbershop in America, plus Hunter S. Thompson has been here as well, so you know this place is legit!

The typical barbershop chatter starts, how do you usually get your hair cut, how often do you get it done, now give me those glasses and we'll get started.  I'll admit I've never had a haircut while holding/drinking a beer, and must admit, its now a new guilty pleasure.  We discussed the usual, what brings you to town, how did you hear about us, and my question, I as of all citizens of NOLA (becuase you get a different answer every time) "Where do you go for a po'boy?"  Nathan spouts off three different places, because one place has better oysters, the other has better shrimp, and then of course if you want roast beef, go to Mothers, all the while over this 30 minute period my hair is getting shorter, and my beer is getting lower.  I am then guided to the back of the shop, to what appears to be the studio of the masters, the subtle, yet classic shave room, two chairs, from here it's very quiet for the next 30 minutes/7 hot towels and an ice cold one last.  Into position in the chair, its shave oil first massaged into the beard to loosen things up, then a hot towel, then shave cream to start to soften the beard, then another hot towel, this goes on once more, all this before the razor even touches my face.  I ask about the razor and am told for sanitary reasons, they are not allowed to use straight razors in Louisiana.  They use the Gillette Mach 3, which surprised me, but still made the experience no less amazing.  I was amazed at the use of 7 hot towels and then the ice cold, I wondered if my beard was so tough thats why they used so much, but was told no, thats the standard for every man who gets the shave.  Rather than bore you with all this, I'll take the excerpt from Mr, Gill himself...

"And so, we begin a timeless shaving ritual honed to perfection by Mr. Gill in his sanctum, beginning with the first application of shaving lather massaged into the beard with great vigor.
This is followed by wrapping the face in a hot towel, dispensed directly from Mr. Gill's own antique chrome towel steamer and wafted gently over the face before wrapping. Mr. Gill explains: "The hot lather and hot towels are applied three times prior to the first pass of the shave. We do this to soften the beard and the skin."

The astute will notice that Mr. Gill refrains here from the use of a shave brush, as this is necessary in the shop for hygienic purposes. At home, Mr. Gill advises a good brush as an indispensable accouterment to the perfect shave. A good shave brush, he notes, should cost its user between $75 and $200 and will last for 10 to 20 years. Not a bad investment for the face.

And now, the razor's first pass. Having previously softened the beard, its bristles surrender more readily to the razor. The face is kept moist with the application of shaving oil, meanwhile, to ensure the maximum closeness of the shave.

Since the days of the barber-surgeons there has been much spirited debate on the merits and perils of shaving against the grain. Mr. Gill advises it in subsequent passes of the razor, after a first, with the grain endeavor. "Shaving this close and shaving against and across the grain is now possible because of the softening effect of the cream, the hot towels and the hot oil," he says.

Upon completion of the shave, after shave balm is applied (which will maintain the softness of the skin and beard, thus preparing it for the next day's assault), followed by another hot towel, more shaving balm and a final hot towel. To rouse our friend from thirty minutes of silent, blissful reverie, we conclude the ritual with the final towel. Mr. Gill explains: "The last towel of the shave, the coup de grace, is plucked from a tub of ice water and applied to the skin with a warning for the customer to brace himself. The towel calms the skin, closes the pores and invigorates."

Upon completion, I am offered another beer and the opportunity to just sit and relax, which I do, my face feeling smoother than a piece of glass, I hate to say that I've never come away from a shave with so close and smooth skin without so much as a nick or cut.  Nathan, hats off to you sir, you are an artist and a king among men!

So there it is, one more thing I can say without a doubt everyone who goes to NOLA needs to try,  Stay away from the one by the Casino, take the bus (it's an experience all to itself) head down to Magazine Street (the original) get a shave, get a haircut, get both, buy some supplies and then take the wife/significant other out on the town for dinner and then  just kiss her with that smooth face and she will tell you that it was worth it!  Oh and from what I hear, Juan's Flying Burrito is a couple doors down and pretty good!

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