Pictures by Lindsey Pawlowski
The door of Belmont Barbershop swings open into sensory overload. Large tufts of hair cover the floor; every inch of the walls is covered with concert posters, animal heads, sports teams, and nostalgic photos. The smell of aftershave hangs upon the air, and classic rock songs play in the background.
The barbers are stylish in the hipster, urban kind of way, donning tattoos and facial hair to match the hoards of men waiting to get their hair cut.
Six barber chairs line the large room, leading customers to the waiting area in the back, consisting of a wooden bench and vintage barber chairs, a 1950s fridge, and complimentary coffee. Near the front of the waiting area lies the notepad, where customers scribble their names on a first come, first serve basis.
Belmont Barbershop, located in Chicago’s Roscoe Village, prides itself on specializing in traditional and classic haircuts. In Belmont Barbershop’s terms, “traditional” means not getting “a bunch of mediocre pampering services that a lot of salons use to lure customers,” according to its website. You sit down, shut up, and let the barber do his job.
José Garcia, 31, is one of the seven resident barbers at the shop.
“We like to keep the traditional barber experience,” Garcia says. “A good haircut is a right of passage for men. A man should be a man, and if you want a kiddie cut, you can go somewhere else.”
Tattoos, a burly beard, and a weathered Cubs shirt are Garcia’s accessories of choice.
“I’m not much of a Cubs fan,” he says laughing, looking down. “It fit me and I knew I could wear it to work, that’s pretty much it.”
The tattoos covering Garcia range from a sugar skull to a name scrawled on his neck.
“The sugar skull is for my culture and my religious beliefs changed several years ago,” Garcia says. “Because the sugar skull is for Dia de Los Muertos, it means rebirth, change, and a new beginning, which I had.”
The name on Garcia’s neck is “Margot.”
“I got my mom’s name on my neck. She was mad because I was 15, and then not mad, and now she’s mad I want to get it removed,” Garcia laughs.
Another one of Garcia’s many tattoos is the four stars from the Chicago flag. Garcia can trace his Chicago roots back the 1930s when his great-grandfather and great-grandmother immigrated to the city from Mexico. Garcia has lived in Chicago for half his life, split between Pilsen and a small town in Iowa.
“I left the house at 16, I left Iowa to come here,” Garcia says. “My parents were very strict, and I rebelled very hard. My mom raised me right, taught me to be a gentleman and respectable. My dad taught me to be a hard worker, he was a f***ing hard worker, and I didn’t realize that if you work hard you get what you want.”
Garcia considered himself a rebel at an early age and realized he had to change or his family would be negatively affected by his decisions.
“I’ve messed up certain things that affected my family, I knew I had to change,” Garcia says. ” I needed change. I needed a job, a life that was less simple; I like fast-paced.”
What started out as a hobby soon turned into Garcia’s living.
“I got into haircutting in high school,” Garcia says. “It ended up being a hobby. I went to a barbershop as a kid and I always got screwed up. I spent a long time looking for a good barber.”
Leaving Iowa at an early age, Garcia struggled to find a job in Chicago. Garcia began cutting hair at Floyd’s, which is located in Wicker Park. However, Garcia soon got tired of the scene and noticed Belmont Barbershop was hiring.
“I just wanted a plain barbershop,” Garcia says. “People talk s***, not give a damn and just have a good time.”
Garcia showed his portfolio to Josh Cooley, the owner of Belmont Barbershop, and had several test trials before getting hired.
“It takes a long time to find someone who fits the shop,” Cooley says. “But José passed and he’s been here almost a year.”
It’s easy to see why Garcia fits right in; his movements are swift and fluid, and he knows how to use his scissors. This is probably why customers are loyal, love the barbers, and are happy to have the traditional barbershop experience.
Out of the seven barbers at Belmont Barbershop, only two handle the walk-ins.
“A little over half of the people come for me,” Garcia says. “I chose not to take appointments because my facts of being traditional — it was first come, first serve, that’s the way it was.”
Garcia handles his customers how he handles his haircuts, straight to the point.
“I just make them [the customers] laugh, shoot the s***, I’m sarcastic, I might make them mad, but they always come back,” Garcia says. “How I feel is how the haircut will turn out, so I always try and be in a good mood.”
Although Garcia loves his job as a top-rated barber, he is looking to the future.
“Right now, it’s hard work and one day I want to do my own thing,” Garcia says. “I would like to take time to go to Peru and take that three hour trip to the mountains or go to Thailand. I want to travel the world and I wouldn’t mind owning a couple of nice buildings.”
Garcia hopes to achieve his travel goals by opening up his own business.
“I want my own barbershop,” Garcia says. “I want my own café. I want my own restaurant. If I were to open my own restaurant, it would be fusion — people like to joke “white boy Mexican,” like an enchilada with flour tortillas or a steak sandwich, but I think that’s what I would do.”
Garcia didn’t always plan on being a barber. He originally wanted to become a counselor for teens.
“I went through a lot of trials and errors,” Garcia said. “I f***ed up in my life, I did great in my life, and I want to teach kids that some things are out of their control.”
Garcia believes a lot of Chicago’s problems stem from the complications within the youth culture. He believes kids are lost and could use guidance.
While cutting a hair, Garcia and a policeman discussed the layout of the city and the segregated neighborhoods.
“’Don’t you notice every neighborhood is separated by a bridge or viaduct?’ the policeman says.
Garcia believes kids need to explore other areas and branch out from their neighborhoods to create a more integrated society.
For the time being, Garcia hopes kids will realize their mistakes, as he has. Although he left home at an early age, and considered it a mistake, he is happy with his decision, as are his parents. Whenever they visit, they are always happy with his current endeavors.
“I think this is the happiest they have ever been with me,” he smiles. “They come visit and I think they want to move back. I think my dad likes it here because it reminds him of Mexico, people still sell fruit on the corner and he doesn’t have to drive everywhere.”