Jan. 15 2013 09:56 PM

Normal Heights shop is a return to an old-school social club

Marvin Attiq (seated) and his crew
Photo by David Rolland

Imagine it’s 1899 and you want to know what’s going on in the world. You really only have two options: buy a newspaper or head to the barber shop.

In the days before indoor plumbing, electricity and cheap, disposable razors, regular stops at the barber shop were essential to good grooming. But hygiene wasn’t the only attraction. Barber shops were places where a gentleman could spend an hour socializing, reading the papers, catching up on local news and, of course, getting a first-class shave and a haircut. And because the barber shop was often the first stop for weary travelers riding the rails, they were a great place to acquire out-of-town news, too.

But somewhere along the line, men lost their way. We stopped going to barber shops and started going to hairdressers in anonymous, interchangeable salons.

Instead of clippers and straight razors, stylists used scissors and blow dryers. And a shave? Forget about it. But they’d happily highlight our tips or change our hair color for a hefty fee.

Marvin Attiq, proprietor of Barber Side, had seen enough. He decided to bring back barbering with a distinctly old-fashioned feel.

Barber Side (3506 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights), is packed with Americana. From the barber pole out front to the diamond-patterned floor, Barber Side is as old-school as it gets.

“The barber chairs are from 1948,” Attiq says. “I got three of them in Colorado. Rebuilt the others that I found in old barber shops. I found a lot of stuff online, yard sales, alleys. I searched everywhere.”

Attiq, who sports a handlebar mustache that looks like it’s straight out of the Gilded Age, has been a collector all his life. He got his start cutting hair as a kid by giving his friends mohawks.

Since 1993, he’s run the Classic Malt Shop on Midway Drive with his brother Jeff, which has also helped his passion for collecting antiques and artifacts.

“Old things are made to last forever,” he says. “New things are built to break.”

Barber Side started as a private, members-only social club that catered to outlaw motorcycle clubs until Attiq finished barber college. He opened his shop in 2010, and today Attiq’s clients come from all over the world—not only for the authentic Barber Shop experience, but also for the products that Attiq makes and sells. You can buy everything from blades and brushes to creams and oils.

Barber Side currently offers a brush cream for straight-razor use, shaving oil for double or singled-edged razors and two aftershaves: Witch Hazel and Bay Rum. It also sells straight razors. “One is made in the Middle East,” Attiq says, “and the other is made in the U.S. with Damascus steel that is folded and hammered over 100 times.”

Barber Side’s most popular product is the Secret Sauce, which Attiq is reluctant to describe much less reveal its ingredients.

“It’s not a gel. Not a pomade,” he says. “Doesn’t flake.”

Now that we know what it’s not, what exactly is it? I’m not sure, but it has a strong vanilla smell and is useful for placing and positioning hair without the greasy residue of a pomade, which Barber Side also sells, and has a distinct bubble-gum fragrance.  

Attiq will even build you a custom barber shop for your home or office, like he recently did for a wealthy North County car collector who wanted an authentic barber shop in his garage.

Barber Side’s signature service is its hot-towel shave. It’s not for the customer in a hurry, as the shave alone can take 25 to 30 minutes. Half of that time is spent preparing the skin for the rigors of the straight razor.

The shave is timeless, with a procedure that dates back thousands of years. If you’ve been shaving with cheap disposable razors all your life, you owe it to yourself to experience an old-school shave. Just don’t believe those who tell you it’s illegal. “That’s what barbers who are unable to perform the shave say,” Attiq says.

Though Barber Side has come a long way from its outlaw roots, it still feels like a social club. Barbers greet you and offer you a beer as soon as you come through the door. Boxing photos and vintage signage decorate the walls. A stack of men’s magazines sits next to a refrigerator filled with cold beer.

There’s an unhurried feel as soccer dads and skateboarders, artists and aging punks talk about their day. It’s more than a place to get a haircut; it’s a place where men come together from all walks of life to participate in a decidedly masculine ceremony.

“You have the Westside and the Eastside,” Attiq says. “This is Barber Side.”

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.