In the chair

What’s said in the barber shop stays in the barber shop.


“Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to know, and all the people that come and go, stop and say, ‘Hello’.”

We all know that tune. It’s a happy one (typical Paul McCartney sunshiney optimism and nostalgia about a jolly barber in Liverpool named Mr. Bioletti who claimed to have cut the hair of three of The Beatles in their youth — Ringo wasn’t one of them).

When you think about going to a barber, it’s always an appointment you look forward to making. You know how you feel when you’re about to go to the dentist? Well, your date with the barber isn’t that feeling (no offense to dentists — we need you and we love you — especially when you don’t cause us pain).

Think about it. You know when you go to the barber or hairdresser, you’re going to be pampered. “Real Man” or not, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’re never more relaxed than when someone is combing and cutting your hair. It’s like the one place in public where you can close your eyes without feeling weird and have a whole “Calgon, take me away” moment.

Benito’s in Oak Bluffs has been an institution since the early 90s when Benito Mancinone opened the shop after coming here in 1991 from Springfield, Mass. On July 1, 2013 he sold his business to his longtime employee and for all intents and purposes daughter, Tracy Briscoe, and her brother, Jason Gruner.

“In January 2014 my brother gutted the location. Over a two week period and 14-hour days he turned the salon into what it is today. I think he did a wonderful job designing the unique interior of today’s Benito’s Salon,” says Briscoe.

While Tracy referred to it as a “Salon,” it still has that old familiar spinning barber pole way above street level to let folks know that there’s a place where anyone — man, woman or child — can come to get their hair done (or “cut” as guys are mostly mandated to say).

Which brings me to a quick point of digression: Where did that whole barber pole thing come from anyway? You may already know. But prior to writing this piece I never gave it a whole lot of thought. It actually dates back to the middle ages when barbers did a whole lot more than just cut hair. They’d perform surgeries, pull teeth, bloodletting, enemas and amputations. As for the colors on the Barber Pole, red meant the surgeons were prepared to bleed their patients, white indicated that bones would be set or teeth pulled, and blue let you know that, if nothing more urgent was needed, all you could expect was a shave.

So that whole “Calgon Moment” was a trepidatious coin toss depending on what was going on with you at the time. But back to the 21st Century.

Even in this all-access world we live in, there is still that one place we can all go where a casual, non-judgemental conversation can occur, and that’s a Barber Shop. We’ve all  heard that trite Nevada tourism slogan “What Happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” correct? Well, honestly, that same covenant can be applied to whatever you tell the person prettying up your hair. I mean, we’ve all been there — relaxed, nothing threatening happening, no bloodletting (or enemas) in your immediate future — it’s a good day. So you feel chatty and let your freak flag fly a little bit. Not that you’re revealing the “state secrets” of your marriage or anything. But you’re less concerned about seeming like a bit of a gossip.

That’s the nature of just about any barber shop or salon you walk into. And while that might spark a little worry in anyone who’s overshared with their go-to hairdresser, take heed.

“I am a bank-vault when it comes to keeping my clients’ conversations confidential,” Briscoe says. “There are plenty of instances where my clients want advice. Everything from relationships to what vacations to go on. With such a diverse clientele the discussion can go in any number of directions. And then there are other instances when I know when to just listen, and welcome them to get things off their chests with no judgment in my heart, only compassion. But then there are other times when all they want is silence.”

The unspoken pact between cutter and cuttee is even more sacred (and obviously more sober) than that of the bartender and whoever they’re serving.

Apart from the whole gossip element, folks in the beautification industry know that not only is it disrespectful, loose lips will ultimately sink their financial ship. Airing someone else’s dirty laundry is just bad for business.

Speaking of business, the game has changed quite a lot since COVID. The days of just hanging out waiting with a dozen or more other patrons is now a memory. Places like Benitos in Oak Bluffs and Bert’s Barber Shop in Vineyard Haven are now strictly by appointment only. When I walked into Bert’s the other day, I was immediately transported back to a time when I was a kid in New York. It was just owner Phil Combra and his customer in the chair, Frank Sinatra echoing throughout the practically empty shop (again, appointment only). It was the 1960s Barber Shop vibe all over again, minus the crowd and not-so-hushed conversations happening.

When asked if he missed the pre-COVID environment of a full waiting room, Combra replied “If I’m being honest, no. Back in those days you never had a break ‘cause you had one customer right after another and you couldn’t catch your breath. Now it’s a pace I like. I have time between appointments.” His client in the chair immediately countered Mr. Combra’s sentiment. “From a customer’s perspective, I actually miss those days — sitting around with everyone, talking, reading the paper …”

When asked what she loves most about being a barber/hairdresser, Briscoe didn’t balk in the slightest. “There have been so many wonderful moments. One that springs to mind is when I noticed a spot on a client’s scalp and not only called his attention to something he had no idea was there, but advised him to seek medical attention. It did turn out to be skin cancer. The fact that he’s alive today because he was proactive about something I happened to mention to him is just surreal for me.”

But the one thing about a barber shop that is universal is how once you’re in that barber chair, the playing field is level. Regardless of your social standing, we are all equal in the eyes of the one with the scissors.

“I, along with the wonderful women I work with, have had over the years everyone from Harvard law professors to master plumbers and all in between. It’s a pretty diverse clientele we have and, as an ancillary benefit, learn quite a lot from them … but we don’t talk about it.”

What’s spoken of in a barber shop stays in a barber shop.