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On the cutting edge

Special to The Times

A man I’ve just encountered for the first time is holding a straight-edge razor perilously close to my throat, a fraction of an inch from my jugular vein. One false move and I could be painting the ceiling with my blood.

I spent a good seven years studying Krav Maga, the official self-defense technique of the Israeli military, but nothing prepared me for my current predicament. Should I grab the hand holding the razor, pin it to my chest and strike the man holding it with my free hand? Should I spin away so quickly he has no time to wield the sharp tool against me?

No, I simply will lean farther back into the reclined chair, enjoy the steaming hot towel wrapped around my face, and allow him to begin shaving me.

It turns out I’m in good hands. I’m sitting in a back corner at Fred Segal Beauty in Santa Monica, and the man with the razor is Nate the Barber, a.k.a. Nathan John Richard. Nate went to Roston’s Barber College in San Bernardino a decade ago, driving 50 miles each way and putting in 1,500 hours at the school.

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“I wanted to learn to use straight razor,” Nate explains. More than that, the 29-year-old wanted to help preserve a tradition that he feared faced extinction. “I wanted to be a barber because it was a dying breed.”

“I like the classic, ‘50s way of life,” he says, and it rings true, what with his hair slicked back like a member of the Stray Cats and much of his visible skin adorned with tattoos, including one of a straight-edge razor between the thumb and forefinger on his right hand.

After barber college, Nate worked for a while in Yorba Linda before finding an empty space in the East Village Arts District of Long Beach and hanging out his barber pole.

But soon, Hollywood came calling. Nate was recruited by Fred Segal to work the Emmys and Oscars, giving shaves to actors in hospitality suites run by Johnny Walker Blue. When Fred Segal Beauty expanded, Nate was offered his own space.

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Nate’s “barbershop” -- actually a restroom converted to a semi-private space barely large enough for a single chair and a cabinet --is an oasis of masculinity in an otherwise feminine space. I can smell the beauty products from the women’s area, but I also see a stack of Playboys and Maxims on the floor near my feet.

Nate works on only men, and he prefers it that way. “I like the traditional barbershop, where it was all male,” he says. “The ‘60s and ‘70s turned everything unisex, but I prefer that boys have their own place, where men can be men.”

But back to my shave: Nate first fills his palm with hot shaving lotion and rubs it into my skin. Next, he takes a steaming hot towel and skillfully wraps it around my face, leaving a small opening for my mouth and nose. When my skin is properly prepared, he removes the towel and pulls out the razor. He pulls on the skin near my right ear and begins to slowly, carefully scrape away the stubble, working methodically and with precision.

For reasons of safety and hygiene, he uses an injector blade instead of the original straight-edge razor, which barbers would sharpen on a strop, a length of leather made specifically for that purpose. In terms of the quality of the shave, it’s not a compromise, Nate insists. “It’s still sharp,” he says, “These blades are made just for straight razors.”

As he wraps another towel around my face, softening my skin before moving on to tackle another area, Nate tells me, “It’s all about moisture and stretching the skin.”

His customers embrace his retro technology. For many, it’s the first time they’ve had a straight-razor shave. “They find it relaxing,” Nate says, “especially once I tilt back the chair.”

Indeed, once in the chair, a guy could spend several hours with Nate, from the shave and a haircut to the Rest Facial and Scalp Massage and Stimulant, which combines a hand massage and an old-fashioned hand vibrator.

Relaxed, I think back to what Nate said a few minutes ago: Yes, it’s about moisture and stretching the skin -- but more about the love of tradition.

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Nate the Barber

Where: Fred Segal Beauty, 420 Broadway, Santa Monica

When: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Info: (310) 451-5155


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