Masters of Craft: A trip to the barbershop

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about barbering. 

OcejoOne Monday in the early afternoon a young Asian man in his late 20s sits in Miles’s chair at Freemans Sporting Club, an upscale men’s barbershop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After greeting him, Miles asks what he would like to do. The man takes out his phone and shows Miles a picture of a model he saw online.

“Well, I can’t exactly do that for you, at least not now. You’ve got that coming down [points to longer hair on the side of his head] that I’d have to gradually get rid of. It’d look good in a couple of haircuts. Is that what you want?”

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

Miles turns to get his tools in order and then starts cutting his client’s hair. He makes basic chitchat to set him at ease: Has he ever been here before? (No.) What does he do? (Lawyer.) Where does he live? (Upper East Side.) After about ten minutes, Miles gets to the side of his head. Perhaps feeling more comfortable, the client talks about his hair.

“I’ve always had problems with that side of my head.”

“Yeah, a lot of guys do,” says Miles. “It’s where your whorl is. Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s this circle on the top of everyone’s head. Yours is there. It’s kind of like where hair starts [on the head]. Most guys who have cowlicks have them because either their hair is too short or it’s going in the other direction [from the whorl].”

“Oh.”

“So that could be why you’re having problems with it. Or it could be how your mom parted it for you when you were a kid, or sometimes you’re left-handed and trying to part on the other side.”

Of the four workplaces I studied, the upscale men’s barbershops are the most obvious places where we can see men performing masculinity. The barbers perform a “caring masculinity” for their clients, while clients go to these high-end shops to seek out a particular look or style to perform their own form of masculinity. Here, Miles is engaged in a “masculinity project.” He’s actively helping his client realize what kind of style would work for him, while simultaneously teaching him about why men usually get cowlicks and giving him an excuse for why he’s always had problems with his part (his mom may be responsible, or his handedness). But Miles is not just passing on knowledge of how to “do masculinity;” he is also working in a masculine-coded job that has been redefined today for a new generation of worker in service and manual labor, which is what he has in common with the people in the other jobs I studied.

Among the most vaunted jobs in today’s economy are those that require knowledge work in some form. These are jobs in high technology industries (IT, nanotechnology, biomedical research), high-end services like finance and design, and creative/cultural industries that require a large amount of human capital. Meanwhile, recent reports show that women-dominated jobs (health aides, counselors) are among the fastest-growing in today’s economy, while men-dominated jobs (manufacturing) are among the fastest-shrinking. Additionally, women have been shown to be more likely to enter male-dominated occupations, such as medical positions, than men are to enter women-dominated occupations, such as those that require caregiving and interpersonal service. In short, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for men to earn a living and achieve respect by using forms of traditional masculinity, specifically their bodies, and more pressure on them to acquire advanced degrees and/or work jobs that require them to interact with and even show empathy toward consumers.

But the jobs I studied represent alternatives to the strictly knowledge- or service-based jobs of today’s economy, and they offer their workers, who are mostly men, greater social benefits than the more common versions of these occupations. They are interesting hybrids: they allow men to use both their minds, as in the sense of style and knowledge Miles provides for his client, and their bodies, as in the technical haircutting skills Miles uses to achieve this style. Similarly, cocktail bartenders use their knowledge of mixology and skills in making cocktails, while whole-animal butchers use their knowledge of meat and artisanal butchery skills. They all must provide interpersonal service, but their interactions almost always circle back to the cultural knowledge. And they all perform their jobs for an audience of consumers in search of unique products, services, and experiences from cultural experts. These consumers validate the performances of these workers by listening to their knowledgeable advice on taste and style, and expressing their gratitude for what they’re receiving from them. Meanwhile, even though they do not regularly interact with consumers, since they aren’t part of the service industry, the craft distillers I studied also use their mind and bodies to manufacture special spirits products. Comments about what they make, directly from consumers and in the media, always refer to their products’ originality and the craftsmanship that went into them. In short, men in these jobs are able to claim a fading sense of middle class masculinity through work by performing physical labor, at the same time as they can achieve a greater amount of status by working jobs that require them to understand and communicate sets of cultural knowledge that have high cultural value in today’s city.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the butcher

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about butchering. 

Ocejo“Hi, can I help you pick something out?” asks Ted, a counter worker at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a whole-animal butcher shop, to a customer. It’s a simple question, common in all types of retail stores. But this customer, a woman in her early 40s, walked into the shop with a surprised look on her face, and has been staring at the shop’s fifteen-feet-long display case for thirty seconds, wandering from end to end. She says she’s not sure, and takes a step back as she notices another customer next to her has a question.

“How would you prepare lamb steaks?” he asks Ted.

“In a hot, hot pan, both sides. You want it to be rare. It really has that funky, lamby flavor to it.”

The customer orders two arm chops. Another comes in and goes right to the beef section.

“No skirts left?” he asks.

“I don’t think so, but let me check,” replies Ted, who then he asks Giancarlo, one of the butchers, to look in the walk-in refrigerator. There are none.

“OK, what else do you have that’s like it?”

“Um, well, we have the feather steak and the sierra. They’re [from] a different part of the animal than the skirt. Sometimes the sierra’s left on the rib eyes as a flap of meat, but when it’s taken off it’s sierra steak. I think it has more flavor than skirt and it’s a good alternative.”

When a customer walks into a typical neighborhood bar, barbershop, or butcher shop (or meat counter Ocejoat a supermarket), it doesn’t take very long for what they see to “make sense” to them. Most of these businesses are set up in similar and familiar ways, and the routines for ordering are pretty standard. But the special businesses that I studied, like Dickson’s, disorient the senses of customers and clients. Craft cocktail bars are dark with sweet smells and sounds of forceful drink shaking. Upscale men’s barbershops accentuate the vintage imagery of classic shops, or feel like hunting lodges, complete with taxidermy. And whole-animal butcher shops feature tray upon tray of meat, with strange cuts of all shapes and sizes. The owners of these businesses want first-time entrants to feel like they’ve stepped into a different world, and to check their expectations at the door. And more than the décor and other sensory stimulants, it’s the workers and their brand of service that really turn the visit into a unique experience.

What does it mean to receive elite service? To be accommodated at an extreme level, to be treated like someone of great importance, and to feel like every immediate need is catered to, even to the point of feeling pampered. We typically think about elite service at places like luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and high-end retail outlets, like BMW dealerships. These places still exist in today’s cities, but I’ve found that they’ve been joined by a new set of businesses with meanings behind the products, services, and experiences they offer that are also distancing with airs of exclusivity. Unlike their more common versions, craft cocktail bars, upscale men’s barbershops, and whole-animal butcher shops aren’t just selling drinks, giving haircuts, and selling meat. They’re also selling the ideas behind the unique products and services they offer and the experience of consuming them within head-turning, transporting environments.

That’s why having workers, like Ted in the above example, who are knowledgeable and passionate about their industry is essential for these businesses. People who strive to work at a craft cocktail bar don’t just want to create, make, and serve drinks with elaborate recipes. They also want to match customers with a drink that suits their tastes, while informing them of why their drinks taste the way they do. People who work at upscale men’s barbershops don’t just want to do as many haircuts in a day as possible. They also want to show clients how they can achieve a certain style that fits their personalities, lifestyles, and careers. And whole-animal butcher shop workers don’t just want to cut and serve meat. They also want to explain the importance of using the whole animal, the ethics behind sourcing meat locally, and the differences and similarities in taste and preparation between cuts that come from various parts on an animal’s body. The sets of cultural knowledge behind these products and services, which these workers communicate to their consumers through service, are what push these businesses above and beyond their mundane versions. In these places we’re seeing how important providing in-depth, rarefied knowledge has become in the world of consumption.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the bar

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. First up, learn more about the art of bartending.

OcejoOn a busy Friday night at Death & Co., a well-known cocktail bar in the East Village, Alex, one of tonight’s bartenders, takes the order of a customer sitting at the bar who just finished his second drink.

“Would you like to order something else?” he asks while taking away his empty glass and cocktail napkin.

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK, you just had a Conference, and remind me of your first one?”

“I had a La Vina.”

“Do you want to stick with rye?”

“Yeah.”

“OK, do you want to taste the peppery notes or the whiskey?”

“Um, more of the peppery flavors.”

Alex nods and gets to work on his drink. After a few minutes he finishes and places it in front of the customer on a fresh cocktail napkin.

“Here we have a variation of a Sazerac, with an ounce-and-a-half of Rittenhouse rye and half-ounce of cognac. Enjoy.”

Common to each of the occupations I studied is that these workers elevate the status of very common, or even lowbrow, products, services, and consumption spaces and experiences through the work practices they use to make and provide them and the interactions they have with their customers and clients. They also often lower the status of products that are generally regarded as having high status, or at least put them on the same level as low-status ones. The first two cocktails the customer in the above example had ordered—the La Nina and the Conference—are both cocktails that feature rye (with sherry and amaro and with a mixture of other spirits, respectively). Rye isn’t typically a spirit that conjures luxury, like scotch or cognac do. It’s an obscure spirit, rarely found behind average bars. Ryes usually have strong, sharp flavors, and are rarely consumed on their own (or “neat”).

But bars like Death & Co., where bartenders strive to achieve unique flavors in cocktails by precisely Ocejomixing ingredients, love rye because of all the possibilities it gives them to make interesting drinks. As the customer’s order and Alex’s interaction with him show, rye can be mixed with an array of ingredients to make drinks with new flavors, and bartenders reveal its range of possibilities to their customers, such as by asking customers if they prefer its more “peppery” notes. These bartenders certainly don’t reject sacred spirits like scotch and cognac. They just don’t automatically see them as “the best.” Since their aim is creativity and innovation, they prefer a variety of spirits, especially versatile ones. Taste, then, rather than reputation, is key. They therefore reject the initial lure of popular brands, with their name recognition, advertising, and sleek bottling. What’s inside the bottle is far more important than what’s outside it.

There are parallels in the other jobs I studied. Small-scale craft distillers make many of the unusual products cocktail bartenders use. They often emphasize rare ingredients, such as heirloom grains, and unorthodox production methods, such as barrels of different sizes and wood varieties. Barbers at upscale men’s barbershops consider the simple, straight-to-the-point men’s haircut to be a special, life-enhancing experience, rather than a basic, forgettable necessity. And butchers and counter workers at whole-animal butcher shops laud rare and lowly cuts of meat and meat products, such as the flatiron steak and jerky, for their unique flavors, while downplaying such elite staples like the tenderloin and the filet mignon for their relative blandness.

By making and promoting these distinctions to their customers and clients, these workers engage in what I refer to as “omnivorous cultural production.” With this idea I’m building from a well-known concept in the sociology of culture, namely the “cultural omnivore.” This theory claims that today more and more people are becoming open to consuming cultural products (e.g. music, film, food) from outside of their own social strata. Most commonly, we’re seeing well-to-do folk show interest in and knowledge of so-called “lowbrow” and working-class forms of culture, that had never been considered “good” or “quality” before by well-regarded arbiters of taste. And they do so without compromising their own social standing. So burgers and tacos become the subjects of food trends, while bourbon and rye join the ranks of elite spirits.

A key question is where these tastes come from. How do people learn that a flatiron steak is better than a filet mignon because of its bolder flavor profile? Consumers certainly learn from the media and from their peers and social networks, as much research has shown. But they also learn from the people who work with these products and perform these services on a daily basis in these high-end workplaces. These workers essentially create these tastes through their daily work practices. Taste, then, is not natural, or something that is universal. It’s something that is created, and people learn it in different ways.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Richard Ocejo on Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy

Ocejo

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Read on for insight on what led Ocejo to write the book, his research process, and why these jobs have become popular.

What led you to study and write a book about cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale men’s barbers, and whole animal butchers?

RO: Like with the project for my previous book, this project started because I walked into a bar. I was studying the impact of downtown nightlife scenes on neighborhood and community life in New York City, and some of the bars I went to were specialized, speakeasy-style cocktail bars that had opened up. They had hidden doors, were filled with remarkable aromas, and offered unique cocktails with unusual ingredients. Most importantly, the bartenders, who wore uniforms of shirts and ties, vests, and even arm garters, used very precise techniques to make these drinks, were very knowledgeable about what they were serving, and clearly loved what they did. I learned that these bars were anchors for a global community of cocktail professionals and enthusiasts, and cocktail bartenders were among the main participants. They were dedicated to making cocktails the way they were made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Furthermore, I loved the drinks. I was hooked.

After studying this community for a couple of years, I became curious about the craft distilling industry. Cocktail bartenders are always searching for new flavors to use in their recipes. Over the past two decades many small distilleries have opened up throughout the country and introduced a broad array of new products to the market. Cocktail bartenders were snatching them up and using them. I decided to become an intern at a craft distillery just north of New York City. During my time there I became very interested in the actual distillers and why they chose this job. Around then I also realized that out of everyone in the cocktail world, it was the bartenders—people who were committed to bartending and cocktails—who fascinated me the most. After a few years of collecting data without much of a focus, I decided to make the project a study about people who are transforming common service and manual labor occupations into “cool” jobs. After some thinking, I rounded out my cases with upscale men’s barbers and whole animal butchers. They both met the criteria I had established, and gave me new industries to study.

So, I never intended to write about these folks, what they do, and why they do it. A series of happy accidents and following my own curiosity led me to them all. Plus, along with yielding important insights about the nature of work today, the research was a lot of fun.

How are these jobs different from the more common versions everyone knows?

RO: They differ from them in a few key ways. First, they all require these workers to regularly perform technical skills based on a sense of craft, to understand and communicate the culture their work is based on, and to have a philosophy about what is “right” and “wrong” in what they do. That’s a little vague, so let me give some examples. Cocktail bartenders, for instance, practice mixology, a classic approach to making drinks that entails precise measurements and specific ingredients, like large chunks of ice and freshly-squeezed juices. The aim is to achieve balance in cocktails, or to have every ingredient work in harmony, and drinks that do not reach that goal fall outside of their definition of what is the “right” way to make cocktails. They then use specific techniques to carry it out. Similarly, butchers in artisanal shops hold a meat philosophy toward what is and is not “good” meat, which includes how the animal was raised and slaughtered and how far it travels to get to the shop. And they also use specific butchery techniques to break down whole animals, trying to use every piece of meat, fat, and bone. One need not know anything about the wide range of flavor profiles in rye or how long to shake a drink to achieve the right level of dilution to be a common bartender at most bars, just like one need not know how to break down a whole animal or talk to customers about rare cuts of meat to be a butcher at a supermarket or even at most neighborhood butcher shops.

Second, these workers all work in businesses that promote their craft and give them the resources they need to perform. These work performances are not accidents. People design these businesses so that workers can make and provide special products and services for consumers. A barber at a neighborhood shop, for instance, can’t work on the fine details in a haircut that give it style if they only have ten minutes to work on it. That’s why the shops I studied provide at least a half an hour for haircuts. And these shops won’t get the clientele they want—professional, creative, culturally savvy—if they don’t promote themselves as places where men can get the style they need in a place that doesn’t threaten their manhood, like a women’s salon does.

Obviously some workers in more common versions of these jobs perform the same technical skills, are very knowledgeable about their work and products and share this knowledge with consumers, and have a sense of “right” and “wrong” in their work. But the combination of these technical and communication skills, sets of knowledge, and philosophy do not define them, nor do they usually work in places devoted to these special crafts or do they get recognized as cultural producers or innovators.

Who decides to pursue these jobs?

RO: That’s what fascinated me the most from the start of my project. It’s mostly people who have other work options who choose to pursue these jobs as careers. I started with the cocktail bartenders. In New York City, the big question bartenders and other people in the service industry often get is: what do you really do? It’s common for students, actors, musicians, artists, and folks who are pursuing some other career to bartender or wait tables until they “make it.” But what I learned early on with the cocktail bartenders was that they wanted to bartend. They were pursuing it as a career in itself. They were mostly college graduates, or they attended college and/or were working in a different career, and they had a lot of cultural capital. These patterns repeated throughout my research with people in the other jobs.

These jobs provided these workers with feelings they either weren’t getting or didn’t think they would get from other types of work: meaningfulness and satisfaction, specifically in a job that required learning a craft, being creative, pursuing passions, sharing knowledge, and being respected. Furthermore, in the new versions of these common occupations these workers saw opportunities for flexibility. In other words, being a butcher means you cut meat. But being a butcher at a whole animal butcher shop also means you teach classes and give demonstrations on butchery, work at special food events, and consult for major chefs and restaurant groups. You also get exposed to the food world and build social networks within the industry in a way you wouldn’t if you worked at a supermarket. The other jobs offer similar opportunities. Young people destined for college and college students learn that work should be meaningful and fulfilling and allow you to be creative, and that you must cultivate marketable skills and be flexible in your choices. The jobs I studied meet these criteria.

Why have jobs like these become popular, and why now?

RO: These particular jobs all happen to be in industries—nightlife, beverage production, men’s grooming and style, and food—that have become very popular in today’s city. These businesses are all key attractions for young, well-educated urbanites with disposable income. Today’s urban economy is based on knowledge, culture, and a wide array of services. These jobs interestingly offer all three. They have emerged to provide very specialized products and services for people in search of unique consumption experiences.

Another big reason why they’ve become popular now is because of changes in how many people in our society consume, how they see themselves as consumers, and the important role consumption plays in their lives and in the life of the city. An important concept over the last twenty years or so among many sociologists who study culture has been the idea of “cultural omnivorousness,” or the idea that today people with highbrow tastes consume, rather than shun, low- and middlebrow forms of culture without compromising their status. But they usually only consume these lower forms of culture when they can intellectualize them in some way and distance them from their lowbrow roots. These workers play a key role for these types of consumers and for urban culture. They basically help to construct and distribute the ideas behind the lowbrow products and services. To give an example, a hot dog is a pretty commonplace, not very distinguished, food. But when it has been filled with local, ethical, and sustainable meat that has been butchered with artisanal techniques as part of a philosophy of using the whole animal, and when it gets topped with a homemade kimchi relish, it becomes a “good” food that gets discussed in the city’s elite foodie circles.

Finally, I would say these jobs also allow people to work with their head and hands as well as interact with others in a public setting. In other words, they get recognized for the work they do, by their peers, consumers, and the media. Electricians and plumbers, for instance, who also use specialized knowledge and a sense of craft and work with their hands, do not work in front of an audience. I think that’s a key difference.

What did you do to write this book?

RO: Like I said before, the research was a lot of fun. I primarily use ethnography in my research, which basically means I hang out with the people I’m studying in their own settings to learn how they see their world by analyzing their interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. Researchers who use this method try to spend a lot of time with the people in these settings to really discover patterns of meaning. They observe, and even participate in whatever activities are happening there to better understand them. So to study these folks I got to do and learn a lot of cool activities.

For the cocktail bars and upscale men’s barbershops I was simply a regular. I went to them very often, sat in places where I could observe the most action, got to know their employees well, and wrote down notes about countless interactions and conversations I saw and had. The bartenders gave me drinks to try, and answered my questions about their creative process, and the barbers let me stand next to and even photograph them as they worked, and also answered my questions about cutting hair. I didn’t become a bartender or barber, or work in these places in some other capacity, for a few reasons. These businesses would only hire people with experience, and I had none. And doing so would’ve distracted me from my data collection anyway. Bars and barbershops are also social places, where people regularly go to hang out and talk. What I was doing is therefore normal.

Studying the craft distillers and whole animal butchers was a different story. Distilleries and butcher shops really aren’t social places where people go to hang out. There is no equivalent of a bar to sit at or a waiting area. But they are both businesses with a lot of little tasks that have to get done, and it’s common for these businesses to hire interns to help out in exchange for learning how these places run (and for discounted meat and the occasional free bottle). So I became an intern at a craft distillery and a whole animal butcher shop, working alongside the distillers and butchers. Those experiences were great not just because I got to learn the basics of a craft, but also because they informed me about what it means to actually do these jobs.

Along with being informative, the people I met and activities I did were just a treat. I’ll admit, I was emotional when the project ended.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.