Cut & Shave: Barbershops Through the Lens

Photographer Rob Hammer loved going to the barbershop with his dad as a kid. Since then, he’s visited more than 1,000 shops in all 50 states, taking pictures along the way.
by Matt Nail | Rob Hammer

Rob Hammer fondly remembers tagging along with his father to the barbershop as a boy. As the Raleigh-based photographer recalls, the barbershop they went to — a small, standalone shop in the town of West Sand Lake in upstate New York — was more than just a place to get a haircut. “What an incredible place for guys to just hang out,” he says. “The camaraderie is the thing that stands out the most to me.”
Since then, Hammer’s fascination with barbershops never left him, even as he noticed that a number of the traditional shops were disappearing all across the country.

So he’s been using his camera to capture what makes them more sanctums than salons. Over the past 13 years, Hammer has visited more than 1,000 shops in all 50 states and captured roughly 200 with his cameras. “These vibrant spaces are more than grooming parlors, they’re incredible time capsules that can’t be duplicated,” he says. “They are cultural landmarks, social hubs and intimate storytellers of our collective narrative.”

In 2020, Hammer published a book of his work, Barbershops of America – Then and Now, and he’s continued to photograph these special spaces. In Raleigh, he’s found subjects that range from the old-school to the new, from gritty to glitzy — but they all share the same feeling of being special places to hang, to gossip, to talk trash, to just be. “These places are like a second home to so many men,” says Hammer. “Some folks have been cutting hair in the same shops for 50 or 60 years. Just think about the things they have seen — and the fact that they have stayed in business while other stores around them have closed.”

For some shops, like Man-Mur Barber Shop on Hillsborough Street or Nicholson’s Barber & Style Shop on East Hargett Street, the allure’s in the familiar. The two shops boast collectively more than 100 years of service. After all, says Larry Pulley, a barber at Nicholson’s, “barbers have been around since Man’s been around.”

For other, newer spots, like Mister Pompadour Barber Lounge at The Loading Dock on Whitaker Mill, which opened in May 2020, the upscale service is the star. “Our barbers are the ones that make the shop so special,” says manager Matt Goldsworthy. “These are people that are committed to their craft. They want to cut hair for their career.”

In the end, the loyal customers that keep coming back do so for reasons beyond just a good haircut. “Going to a barbershop is often more about connection and community than it is about actually getting groomed,” says Hammer.

“People may be surprised at the amount of expertise it takes to care for a beard,” says Mister Pompadour’s Matt Goldsworthy. He incorporates steam treatments to rejuvenate the natural oils that are lost to everyday life. “Underneath it is still skin. It needs moisture,” says Goldsworthy. “The steam relaxes it. The softener helps it get the oils it needs to keep growing, to give it that shine back.” Right: The hands of Joe Martin, one of the barbers at Nicholson’s Barber & Style Shop on Hargett Street.

Barbers at Man-Mur — a name that nods to where the customers hail from, “Murphy to Manteo” — have been serving Raleigh since 1959. Current owner Richard Creech has been cutting hair at the location, which he operates with his wife Wendy, since 1988. “The things on the walls of barbershops are indicative of its community,” says Hammer. “You see a bunch of NC State stuff at Man-Mur, whereas if you go to a barbershop in Montana it’s covered with hunting trophies.”

The slogan on the windows outside Nicholson’s Barber & Style Shop in downtown Raleigh says it all: “It pays to be well groomed.” Carlton Nicholson and his team (including Larry Pulley, pictured) have been doing that — and providing a place to get up to speed on the latest news — for decades. “People like the small-town atmosphere,” says Pulley. “It gives people a sense of unity.” Right: Yes, the main mission of any barbershop is to cut hair. But as men’s tastes have changed, so have styles. Sometimes customers need a little styling help — in the form of pomades.

Arrow Haircuts has found its niche in the area since founder Pete Phipps opened its first Raleigh location more than a decade ago in the old Professional Barber Shop on Woodburn Road in The Village District. Today, Arrow has 10 locations in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Charlotte.  
When Dominican-born and New York-raised Joseph Mejia opened his shop The Dominican on Capital Boulevard in 2006, the master barber sought to fill a gap by providing hair care for Latino men. Since then, it’s become a popular destination for people of all cultures — and hairstyles. “It’s an experience to even visit,” says Hammer. “I’ve never seen so many barber chairs in my life.”
“Can I get you a beer?” is often one of the first things a customer is asked when they walk into Arrow. Each location offers beer for the adults and lollipops for the kids. Arrow has even partnered with Trophy Brewing Company to offer special brews like “Off the Top” and “The Usual.”
 A customer gets a consult at The Dominican.
 Goldsworthy notes that cutting facial hair can be tricky and it can grow slowly. “You cut a man’s beard too short or mess it up, it’s messed up for a while.” 
Nicholson’s Barber and Style Shop embraces its history; the furniture and decor are essentially the same as when it opened all those years ago. “This look and feel can’t be duplicated because time is the only way to achieve that look,” says Hammer.
Like a lot of barbershops, Man-Mur is as much a hangout for the latest news and gossip, whether you need a haircut or not. “The day I was there, these guys came in and just sat down and started cracking jokes,” recalls Hammer. “And it was clear that it’s a daily occurrence.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.