Farrell Stephens was terrified the first time he shaved a man’s face with a straight razor. Taking a blade to the face of a complete stranger can be rattling, in part because it’s so essential not to be rattled.
“It’s almost like a Zen thing: You completely focus, you don’t pay attention to anything around, you just focus on that razor,” he says.
Stephens and I are sitting in Key Lime Salon, a small shop near the corner of Baxter and Highland avenues where he serves as a stylist and the resident barber, specializing in the lost art of the shave, a métier with Bronze Age vintage. I’ve come — on the recommendation of a female friend who knows Stephens — to get one.
It’s clear this man, tall, thin and collected, all 30 years of him, knows shaving. When he found himself burnt out with landscaping a few years ago, the Madison, Ind., native enrolled at the famed Tri-City Barber College in Louisville. It was a mix of some native affinity for cutting hair and the persistent urging of Bryan Blair, who’s owned Key Lime for 13 years and had been cutting Stephens’s hair. Blair held a seat for the protégé for more than a year while Stephens completed school.
It was at Tri-City where Stephens really dug into (pardon the pun) the shave. He began learning its history: Barbers were once shamanistic, and by virtue of their business, also turned their blades to surgery. Hyper-speeding a rather complicated history, a split eventually came between barbers and surgeons, and the shave was secured for some time as a remaining specialty, albeit a less pampering and more utilitarian service than it is today.
In school, Stephens offered free shaves to his male customers, and soon he was pulling the $5-per that gets you a student’s shave. He learned about big-city shops like the Grooming Lounge, est. in Washington, D.C., around 1900, and Truefitt & Hill, founded in London in 1805. He obsessed over styles, equipment and technique.
The shave itself is something to behold: I get comfortable in the 1940s barber chair Stephens bought from Joe Ley Antiques on East Market Street, he cranks the lever and I’m down in a second, then draped. The first hot towel moistens my face for a couple minutes, and Stephens wipes down my cheeks, mustache region, neck and chin, removing debris that could irritate. He massages in a couple plugs of American Crew shave oil and wraps my face in another steam towel. Then it’s hot lather and a few more minutes of a double steam towel, keeping things loose for the main event.
This is my first pro shave, and I’m not so much nervous and just deeply intrigued by the whole process. Stephens shaves the 13 regions of my face, each with its own stroke technique, at least two times over. His touch is light, fine. He often reapplies moisture, alternately adding lather and steam towels. In about an hour, after a final round of post-shave moisturizing and consecutive cold towels, I’m as clean-shaven as I’ve ever been, and I smell like such a man.
The shave is like the slow-food movement, or any other pre-technology act of deliberate human interaction that requires time, patience, a trusted hand and a learned skill. Stephens says he’s helping break the cheap, disposable tradition of modern shaving with a more contemplative gesture.
Blair admits he’s been surprised by the interest.
“I think people are missing service like it used to be in the old days, not even the shave but just in general,” he says.
If you’re looking for a good, cheap gift for the dude in your life, try this out. It’s $25 for a Farrell Stephens shave, and a quick Google search will net some of the others who offer the service in Louisville, although I’ll only testify to this one. It’s worth the wait.