Deemed an “essential service”, barbers were suddenly shoved onto the frontline

Deemed an “essential service”, barbers were suddenly shoved onto the frontline

Pickings and Parry, image by Dan Hocking
Words by Arielle Richards

We check in with barbershops, Pickings and Parry and The Melbourne Barber Shop, to see how they’re faring.

In March, as lockdown restrictions forced the closure of pubs, beauty salons and tattoo studios, hairdressing salons and barbershops were made exempt, placing them as somewhat incongruous additions to the handful of “essential services” allowed to continue during a global pandemic.

For Chris Pickings, founder and owner of Fitzroy barbershop Pickings and Parry, the government’s decision was “ridiculous”.

“We had our last day on March 23, by then everyone was really nervous about coming in. It was pretty crazy the business wasn’t deemed necessary to close, given the amount of personal contact it requires,” he says.

“I still can’t believe we didn’t get locked down, people can live without their haircuts, you know? It’s hardly an essential service.”

Pickings and Parry, run by husband and wife team Chris and Carlan Pickings, has operated on Gertrude Street for seven years, moving from the top of the iconic street just over two years ago to a larger space further down the road to accommodate for their growing business.

The business has bloomed over the years and now employs nine staff. On a usual day pre-COVID, three barbers on duty would see around 36 customers.

Pickings and Parry dually operates a retail business in-store, selling streetwear, accessories and grooming products.

Despite being officially in the clear to operate, Pickings decided to close the store for six weeks. In the “hairy” period before JobKeeper was implemented, they were thankfully able to keep all nine of their staff on board, casuals and full-timers included.

“We had a really hairy three weeks when we didn’t think we were able to make it financially,” Pickings said. “It was pretty scary, but luckily we had our website, and deliveries for the store still coming through, so we put our staff on to ramp up those areas of business.”

Pickings’ casual staff and barbers’ talents were redirected towards social media management and the running of the retail business through the online store, working from home in the process.

“It was pretty fun for the first two weeks, but then it all got a bit boring,” Pickings said. “For the barbers, one of them would come in every couple of weeks or so and do one of our staff’s hair, just to keep them handy and occupied. The week before we reopened the barbers all came in and did a few haircuts, to warm them up, get them ready.”

For a large store like Pickings and Parry, the decision to close came naturally, but to pull it off as successfully as they did required a creative reimagining of what a barbershop could be.

For smaller operations, like The Melbourne Barber Shop in the CBD, which usually runs with only two barbers at the helm, closing shop was equally complicated. George Nichas, owner of The Melbourne Barber Shop, closed his business for five weeks amidst the pandemic, a difficult decision he felt obligated to make.

“Because of my own social conscience, and my fear, I closed, to the detriment of my business,” he said. “Although we were regarded as an essential service, in not being able to provide social distancing in my store, it was important for us to do it.”

The Melbourne Barber Shop is now operating as a “one-barber show” for Nichas, who is content to operate at a limited capacity, especially amidst Melbourne’s current second wave of infections.

“I don’t want to rush back to pre-COVID work life, I’m enjoying going home at dinner time and eating with my wife for a change,” he said. “We all still need to be careful until a vaccination comes. For now, I feel safer knowing my clients.”

For Pickings, one stream of government support came through and their period of closure was “refreshing”, in a way.

“The pressure came off because, at that time, any revenue at all was a bonus for us. We just wanted to keep handy, keep busy, keep doing stuff. It was refreshing,” Pickings said. “After four or so weeks though, we started to feel restless, like, ‘Can we go back already?’.”

On May 4, Pickings and Parry reopened, to raucous demand.

“We were completely booked out for the first two weeks of reopening. We were restricting cuts to 30 minutes each, with a 30-minute break in between each customer.”

Bookings are slowing down at the moment, a phenomena Pickings thinks could have something to do with the recent spike of COVID-19 infections hitting Victoria.

“We have strict hygiene measures in place, including gloves, masks and sanitizer on offer, and after each customer, we complete a cleaning checklist, but I think people are maybe stepping off a bit,” he said.

“If people are being more cautious again, it’s a good thing.”

Pickings and Parry and The Melbourne Barber Shop are still operating. Book in for a trim via their respective websites.

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