Shear competition down the block

Familial ties connect downtown’s six traditional barbershops, which cater to different target customers, including Queen’s students, Gaels athletes, the military and long-time clients

Engineering students and Gaels athletes are a large portion of the customer base of Dino’s, owned by Dino Bartzis.
Engineering students and Gaels athletes are a large portion of the customer base of Dino’s, owned by Dino Bartzis.

Kingston’s barbers are the last of a dying breed.

“Unless someone teaches you to be a barber and use clippers, it’s hard to find barbers,” Demetre Senis said.

“They’re like the buffalo — they’re becoming extinct.” Senis owns Sir Johnnies Barber Shop, a snug establishment neatly tucked away on Montreal St. He’s one of Kingston’s most experienced haircutters — a title exclusive to him and a few counterparts.

No less than six traditional barbershops populate the city’s downtown core, starting just north of Queen’s campus and curling a kilometre down Princess St., toward the waterfront.

Divided by ideology and price, they remain united in several ways: familial ties, an enduring reliance on scissors and clippers and a shared sense of their trade’s mortality.

Senis himself has hung around barbershops since 1964, sweeping the floors of Kingston’s old Circle Barber Shop, once owned by his father. Nearly five decades later, one old customer still comes to Senis for haircuts.

Still, he’s seen the congenial nature of the barbershop dissolve over time.

“The barbershop used to be a hangout — it’d be the place where you’d come sit around and shoot the shit, talk about the hockey game, what you did on the weekend,” Senis said. “Everybody’s in a rush [now].”

Cutting hair has been entrenched in Senis’ family since their emigration from Greece in the early 1960s. His cousin, Christos Senis, owns Generations Barbershop, just three blocks up from Sir Johnnies.

Along with Vecchio’s — located slightly further east, on Wellington St. — Sir Johnnies and Generations form the upper pricing echelon of Kingston’s barbershops.

Closer to campus, University, Dino’s and Soussan’s Barber Shops all sit within a four-block stretch on Princess St. Their rates are roughly two-thirds those of the higher-priced shops.

Senis said that gap has fuelled competition amongst the city’s barbers.

“Some of the prices at some of these barbershops — I used to charge that in 1988, the lower prices,” he said. “The better way of doing it is people charge similar prices, and everybody doesn’t get hurt by it.

“Why should you work just to pay your bills — why don’t you work to make some extra money?”

While his rate isn’t reflected across the board, Senis’ pricing is competitive with his cousin’s — the owner of a locally distinguished shop himself.

Christos Senis has owned Generations for the past decade. The shop is a throwback to vintage barbering, replete with a pool table and a stockpile of Playboy magazines.

While he offers discounted haircuts to Gaels athletes, Christos Senis said his comparatively high prices aren’t influenced by Kingston’s other barbershops.

“In today’s day and age, a nine-dollar haircut or a 10-dollar or an eight-dollar as you can get up the road, it’s just ridiculous. Those are prices from the [1990s],” he said. “When people want these nine-dollar haircuts, it causes competition because you have bills to pay.”

Further west down Princess St., other Kingston barbers have confirmed their commitment to cheaper cuts.

The proximity of lower-priced barbershops to Queen’s campus makes them an especially attractive option for students. Elly Graham, a barber at Dino’s, said engineering students and Gaels football players make up a substantial portion of her shop’s clientele.

Steve Blenderman, the owner of University Barber Shop, said he gears his prices around the thousands of students on a budget that reside within walking distance of his door.

“If I’m in a situation where I have a bunch of [customers] who don’t have a lot of money, but I have a lot of those people, I’ll keep my price low and the volume high,” Blenderman said.

“Somebody else might be in a situation where they’ve got a lot of rich [customers], but not a lot of them, so you can charge more.”

University’s prices also cater to Kingston’s military personnel, who must satisfy the armed forces’ rigid grooming standards.

“The military and RMC [students] are here every two weeks. You can’t be nailing them with big prices, because they won’t come back,” Blenderman said. “There’s only maybe one or two shops in the city that still actually use the razor around the ears and the neck. The military need that. Not want it, need it.”

With such a heavy concentration of potential customers, some of Blenderman’s most worthwhile deals have come for no charge at all.

Recently, he doled out free haircuts to two homeless youths who walked by his shop.

“Three days later, one comes back and says, ‘Remember me? You cut my hair the other day — I got a job,’” Blenderman said. “I didn’t expect anything back, but he was tickled pink. He’s now working and still working — and he’s now a regular customer.”

“If you give a little bit, sometime that little bit comes back.”

Blenderman estimates that he’s performed 375,000 haircuts in 33 years, spent between Toronto, London and Kingston.

He started working at his current shop in 1998, when it was located at Princess and Barrie Streets and known as Olympic Barber Shop — originally owned by Demetre Senis’ uncle.

Unlike the Senis cousins, Blenderman doesn’t see Kingston’s inter-barber relations as naturally contentious.

“All the barbers in this city talk to each other. We compare prices — we all get along very well,” he said. “There’s no banging heads. As long as everybody’s doing well, why should it make a difference?”

That sense of camaraderie, however, doesn’t extend to other hair care establishments — namely, Kingston’s upper-class salons.

According to Blenderman, the Ontario government requires prospective barbers to carry both a barbering and a hairdressing license — deterring those who don’t want to undergo hair styling training from starting a business.

“A lot of younger people don’t want to learn styling stuff. I’m basically [a] last-generation barber,” Blenderman said. “We’re dwindling and they’re building.”

That detachment is embodied on Queen’s campus through Signatures Hair and Tanning Salon, located in the lower level of the JDUC.

Unlike barbershops in downtown Kingston, Signatures provides an array of hair styling services — from traditional buzz cuts to hair colouring and shampoos, as well as spa treatments.

“Most of us are precision hair stylists, so our equipment is not just clippers,” said Margaret Mills, a part-time hair stylist at Signatures and the salon’s original manager. “The service is above and beyond what a barbershop would provide.”

Signatures’ prices are slightly below those of other high-end salons, but students may be inclined to look elsewhere for a cheaper standard trim.

“If somebody comes in and says they can’t afford a $22 haircut, that’s why we like those barbers,” Mills said. “They provide that service, and we don’t want to drop our prices down.”

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