Rocket Barbers in peckham. Roberto Mereu in FS magazine shoot ()Rocket Barbers in peckham. Roberto Mereu in FS magazine shoot () © Copyright

The chop shop

Have you ever watched the New York barbershop scene in Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America? There are four men in a Queens salon (three of whom are played by Murphy), debating who is the best heavyweight boxer of all time.

The conversation is as accurate as it is absurd; the old black barber is arguing with an old white Jewish man about Muhammad Ali’s renunciation of his ‘slave name’ Cassius Clay, with the elderly Jewish man defending Ali’s conversion to Islam.

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Barber combing hair in FS magazine shoot ()

 

You get it, and can even relate to it, even though you haven’t experienced being an elderly black, working class male in 1980’s New York. Why? Because this one scene of parody gets to the very heart of a barber shop’s place within modern society.

“The barber shop is definitely an important part of the community these days, especially for men,” Danny Woodlands, a barber at Rocket Barbers in Peckham, south London, tells us. We’re here for a trim, but also to chew the fat and find out why barber shops are considered a haven for men from all backgrounds. “You get customers from all different walks of life, with different styles and backgrounds,” he continues. “The shop is where guys can come in and chill, listen to good music and leave feeling happy about themselves. That’s the atmosphere we’re trying to create, anyway.”

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Spencer Holmans poses for FS magazine photoshoot ()

 

For centuries, barber shops have been hubs for public discourse, debate, socialising and even business. The profession can be traced back through ancient Egypt to the Greeks and Romans. In the middle ages, a barber would take on minor surgery and dental work, and by the early 20th century, they were usually considered esteemed businessmen.

Since the mid half of the last century, barbering had become something more functional, however – the rise of the cosmetic industry feminised the art of grooming, while the teenage revolution rebelled against their well-groomed forefathers.

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Barber cutting hair in FS magazine shoot ()

 

Today, barbering is very much back in vogue. The profession itself is rightly considered a craft, but it’s the space shops such as Rocket create that give blokes an environment other than the pub to socialise in.

“The way we set up was to provide that inclusive experience where people can come in, sit down and take it easy. There’s no rushing, no appointments, no stress,” says Rocket’s owner, Roberto ‘Robbie’ Mereu. Barber shops are also the physical temples produced by the past decade’s boom in male grooming. Shops have been set up or converted to cater for all kinds of styles and sensibilities. From lively Afro barbers of south London, where the party goes on all night, to narrow-roomed parlours of sedate mining towns in the North East, barber shops are taking the shift in paradigm seriously.

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Barber spraying hair in FS magazine shoot ()

 

“I started seeing a change about six or seven years ago,” Robbie says. “Barbering started to be absorbed into popular culture more; young blokes especially were starting to take more interest in how they looked. There was a point where I thought grooming was merging too much with fashion – you know, the whole lumberjack look – but it’s kind of balanced out now.”

One thing that never changes is the topics of conversation. Rocket is filled with the idle chitchat of a week gone by. Conversations revolve around football, partners, nights out, holidays, music. Perfect strangers talk, getting involved with each other’s musings.

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Barber shaving hair in FS magazine shoot ()

 

Barbers such as Spencer Holmans are the social lubricant that makes such conversation run smoothly. “I’ve been doing this 24 years and it’s always different,” he says. “It’s great meeting different people, that’s what makes it special. I love craft, and you’ve got to love what you do.”

Creating such a space where conversation can flow has always been the goal for Robbie. As hip as the space is, it’s unpretentious, and is fairly-priced for a shop in one of the more deprived areas of London. A proper short-back-and-sides – skin fade ’n’ all – is £18, a quick trim roughly £12. There are concessions for OAPs and students, too, and this social awareness is appreciated by locals in an area feeling the gentrification squeeze.

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Barber holding scissors ()

 

“We’re well-priced in comparison to others around us, and we place the most emphasis on quality,” Robbie says. “It’s not a pampering. But you do get something of high quality, and you look forward to being here.

“Our customer base is so diverse; south London is a very multicultural place. As a business we have to be able to provide something for everyone. Anyone can walk through those doors.”

Rocket Barbers in peckham. Roberto Mereu in FS magazine shoot ()

 

Photos: Tom Miles

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