- Jess Campisi
Gentlemens Top Option, a friend has informed me, is the chopper of choice for the discerning male a far cry from both my familys makeshift barbershop and the generic mega-salon. Nearly every man needs a cut now and then, but most guys at least the ones I know fear the standard beauty salon. If a man is spotted entering a wax room, as GTO proprietor Penny Jones puts it, hes obviously looking to tackle some stubborn follicles. The male-friendly Mens Room offers many of the same services as GTO but is located on busy Church Street, just across from Burlington City Hall.
At GTO, anonymity is a major selling point. Proprietor Penny Jones established the company six-and-a-half years ago on Battery Street but later moved to Lake Street. At this more out-of-the-way Waterfront location, men can park behind the large brick building and come in for cuts, hair coloring and massages without letting the whole world know what theyre after. Since my hair has begun to spout coarse flaps over my ears and neck, I decide to give GTO a try.
The salon is spotlessly clean, with rich, earth-tone walls and black-leather barber chairs that denote luxury. The eight-foot windows admit great pillars of light from three directions and permit an expansive view of Waterfront Park. A haircut here costs $22 a pretty standard salon sum. But to a newly minted college grad like me, the place feels pretty classy.
Im vaguely aware of some half-dozen other clients on my first visit, but each chair has its own private space, embraced by diptych mirrors. All I can see, as I settle into my leather chair, is the reflection of Jones as she sweeps the floor, then begins combing my hair.
What would you like today? she asks.
Pretty short, I say. It sounds lame. Im not versed in the stylists lingo, but I figure my hair simply speaks for itself: unparted, no frills and as far as I know no significant bald spot.
Jones begins with the clippers. Buzzing quickly and confidently, she takes complete control of my skull. Like all her employees whom she calls my girls Jones is slim and young-looking, and a wellspring of energy. Im almost embarrassed that my head is being handled by such an attractive woman one of GTOs unspoken draws, no doubt.
Charm aside, Jones is a determined businesswoman who has been styling hair for 12 years. Growing up around Lake George, New York, she always knew her future was in hairdressing, she says. After earning a two-year business degree at Champlain College, she studied and worked for six years at OBriens Salons, where she amassed a clientele of mostly men. Anxious men, as it turned out, who were skittish about words like styling and pedicure.
Like jewelry and nice shoes, which are usually classified as feminine interests, hair is something many men dont think about until its either mangy or vanishing altogether. Jones is dedicated to making men feel comfortable. Even the salons acronym is tailored to appeal to guys. A deliberate reference to the Pontiac GTO, its not only easy to remember, but also subtly suggests the raw masculinity of car engines. Jones theory is that men will relax if they associate highlights and facials with auto parts.
She tells me to lean my head back. Im sitting in a different chair now, with a seat that adjusts to the arch of my back as I dip my occipital into a large, stationary bowl. Jones lathers my hair with sweet-smelling shampoo. As I stare at the ceiling, I notice that the room has a clean scent. She informs me that no chemical hairsprays or blow dryers are used at GTO, a policy that improves air quality. Mens hair gels can be obnoxious to rinse out, but at least they are easy on the nose.
What do you use for your hair? Jones asks.
Pretty much straight-up Denorex, I say. You know, the battery acid for itchy scalps. Sometimes Ill steal whatever my roommates leave around the shower.
Dont use generic products, she commands. You know how your hair gets squeaky clean when you wash it out? Thats a sign of a cheap shampoo.
We return to the first chair and Jones pulls out the scissors to refine the cut. She has a subtle style, slicing mere millimeters of wet hair with the precision of a seamstress. I ask if some hair is easier to cut than others. Its a dumb question the answer seems obvious but Jones remarks that slight waves make the process easier than straight locks. Apparently my nondescript curls make for a very easy cut.
Jones finally steps back and asks what I think.
Looks fabulous, I say. The contours are even and meticulous; this isnt just a shortening, as my previous barbers would have done. My hair fits my head, rounding perfectly. Unfortunately, my face looks bottom-heavy.
Do you do beard trims? I ask.
Yes, we do, Jones replies. What would you like?
Well, whats your professional opinion?
Short, she says emphatically, as if shes been itching to tell me.
I came in looking like a Viking, with my threadbare red facial scruff. Jones electric razor efficiently mows it down. She cuts closely across my throat I cant help but think of Sweeney Todd then whips the bib off my neck. Finis!
Approaching the register and the knock-out receptionist a graduate student at Columbia University working here for the summer I ask if GTO ever hires men.
Ive never received a résumé, Jones says, seeming puzzled at the fact. A few men have telephoned her about an interview but never followed up. Five of her stylists came here directly out of cosmetology school; this is only the second job for the other two. Even her resident massage practitioner is a woman.
Just before checking out, I spot Jones wedding ring. I ask if her husband an upscale professional, she tells me comes here.
Oh, yes, Jones says, laughing. Hed better.
Before I leave, another client a regular for nearly two years offers a testimonial. I get the sense when Im here that the staff is committed to giving a good haircut. Ive had my hair screwed up by so many barbers. Not to speak badly of barbers, but for the once-a-month I get a cut, its just a little splurge that I enjoy.
Im not picky about my hair Mom and Supercuts had easy customers. But for a young professional like me, a real salon is an exciting novelty. Leaving GTO, its impossible to resist a moments vanity. In the shaded windows, I glimpse the clean-cut image of a gentlemans trim.