Sunday, January 30, 2011


A barber shop is unlike any other social space. It is a business, but it’s also a gathering place, and a place where a man is allowed to extend his living room into the larger world. It’s a place where chairs are comfortable and history bounds from the walls like sound. It’s a place that feels like an old shoe, its leather tarnished but strong, and its soles marred but comfortable. In 2011, most men go to chain hair cutteries with their disaffected beauty school graduates and minor hair felons, or upscale salons with their disaffected models and aloof trendsetters. The comfort and familiarity of the barbershop is lost on most men in Chicago. There are some neo-retro barbershops that have opened up in Chicago’s hipper neighborhoods, but they try a little too hard with luke warm Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in mini-fridges and halfhearted straight razor shaves. Those who understand know that a real barber shop can’t be forced. Like a decent pair of jeans, or a good woman, it just exists. Those looking for a real barbershop experience in Chicago, should hike up to a quiet little suburb Northwest of the city called Park Ridge.

Mario’s hair salon has been in Park Ridge for years and it still caters to a dedicated clientele of men looking for the perfect proportioned haircut. The small store front location off of Northwest Highway is easy to miss, but once inside, the shop’s uniqueness is hard to deny. The men cutting hair at Mario’s will smile at you when you enter, but only after the bell rings and makes your presence known. The air in the shop is filled with the scent of shave cream, powder and hairspray, and a small television fills the room with sound. There’s usually a few men of varying ages sitting in the vinyl chairs along the wall. They pitch stories back and forth to the barbers, and trade jokes, political debates, and familial stories. The walls at Mario’s are lined with memorabilia, family photos, news clippings, VFW flags and large mirrors. The sound of scissors dances lightly behind the boisterous voices and laughing. Some god somewhere knew that conversation goes well with haircuts, like wine and cheese, or smoking and sex. There isn’t any pretentious music, free whiskey or beer, and nobody there is wearing designer anything, but somehow it all holds together. Somehow Mario’s manages to feel like home, both nostalgic and relevant, and never ashamed of its flaws.

Once in the chair, the barbers at Mario’s move like dancers. They ask you what you want, but once you’re in the chair they already know what to do. Powder puffs about your head, a paper collar is placed around your neck and the striped apron goes around the whole chair. In an instant, a foot goes on a squeaky leaver and you’re hiked up or down in an ancient chair with ashtrays in the armrests, and turned toward the television. You do some talking, some story telling, some laughing, watch your favorite Chicago team lose, and close your eyes for a few minutes. When the barber’s done, you’re a little rested, and your hair looks better than it did when you walked in and the bell rang.

Mario’s is a place for guys who know that beer is best served cold inside of a darkened bar, beautiful girls are everywhere, conversations should be hilarious, and haircuts should be about the scissors and the company.

Do your hair a favor and go see Mario.

Mario’s Barber Shop
1017 North Northwest Highway
Park Ridge, Illinois

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