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A Slice of Life at a Barbershop That's Not on the Cutting Edge : Americana: Louis Valencia still offers the butch, ivy-league or flattop with fenders--but don't ask for anything fancier.

March 24, 1994|JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Louis Valencia snips a few hairs and glances out the window of the Manhattan Barber Shop.

*

Much has changed from the day he bought the shop in 1954. Giant condos stand where once were small beach cottages. A blue-tile sidewalk, not slab concrete, now leads beach-goers along Manhattan Avenue.

Change has marched by outside, but time hasn't stepped in for a trim. The shop looks the same as it did when it was opened 60 years ago, from the metal waiting chairs with lime-green upholstery to the weathered, 1930s cash register.

And sure as your hair will grow back after a bad cut, Valencia still offers a butch, an ivy-league or a flattop with fenders at one of the better rates in town.

"The usual?" Valencia, 59, asked as he placed a clean white smock over Reese Gothie, a Northrop administrator who, except for a couple of years during the Korean War, hasn't missed a monthly visit since 1948.

"The usual, Lou," Gothie said, relaxing back into one of the shop's three aging barber chairs.

More than just a place to get your hair cut, Valencia's shop represents a world of ritual and tradition for generations of South Bay men. Many were reluctant toddlers when their fathers first dragged them to the shop at 1203 Manhattan Ave.

Each has inevitably undergone the adolescent's rite of passage, when Valencia first lathers warm shaving cream across the back of the youth's neck and takes a straight edge to the hairs that an electric razor just won't cut.

And many raised under Valenica's able shears will wait more than an hour until his chair is empty, while Tony Di Nardi, a barber Valencia employs, sits idly by polishing his shears.

But shops like these are on the verge of extinction. The ever-spinning red, white and blue barber poles are disappearing from California communities as changing hairstyles and competition from hair salons have cut into the barbering business. The number of barbershops statewide has dwindled to 4,000, half the number 30 years ago.

That doesn't make sense to Steve Mitchell, 42, who sipped coffee for 45 minutes on a recent afternoon waiting until Valencia was available.

"I've been to those hairstylists," he said. "It all comes out the same either way."

Valencia went to work on Mitchell's hair. Pursing his lips and furrowing his brow, he carefully wrapped a handkerchief around Mitchell's neck and began combing his hair.

He grabbed the electric razor from behind the counter, flipped the switch, and slowly dragged its edge up the back of Mitchell's head until the bulk of the hair was gone.

As snippets floated to the ground, Valencia began trimming the front of Mitchell's hair with long, shiny shears. Forty minutes later, Valencia held up a small mirror as Mitchell studied the cut.

"How's that for you, sir?" Valencia asked.

"I almost look respectable."

The routine instills confidence in Valencia's patrons, who read bruised and battered copies of the daily paper as they await their turn.

Gary Webber, 46, has gone regularly to Valencia's shop for nearly 20 years. The Redondo Beach resident left work early on a recent afternoon to get a trim with his sons, Sy, 15, and Saul, 10.

Sy got his first flattop from Valencia at age 4. He's since moved on to a straight trim, tapered up the back. His father approves, pointing to an illustrated chart of short, crew-cut hairstyles of the early 1960s.

"If it's on the chart, it's OK," the elder Webber said. "But a big departure from the chart would require executive input from mom." That hasn't been necessary yet, he said.

Most of Valencia's customers prefer one of the short, clean-cut styles on the chart or a slight variation. Most require a shave down the back and above the ears and a shave or trim across the top.

Don't ask about anything fancier--these are the styles Valencia likes to cut.

But even he needs a change now and then. Valencia plans to retire in several years and pass his shears on to another barber.

He said he will miss his customers of 40 years, but he thinks their hair can survive without him.

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