April 1st 2010
Unlike many immigrant parents, Olga Rivera, who moved from Guatemala to New Orleans in 1965, wanted her son Cesar to become one thing and one thing only — a barber. Cesar, growing up amid the culinary splendors of the Big Easy, wanted to be a chef.
Mothers know best. Eventually, the kitchen heat got to Cesar, and he switched careers. After apprenticing at a half-dozen shops around town, including Aidan Gill’s renowned ultra-luxe salon in the Irish Channel, Rivera recently opened his own men-only temple to fine barbering in the Uptown neighborhood. The Magazine Street Barber Shop sports two restored Congress-model Koken chairs for haircuts and a separate station (antique nickel-plated towel steamer, LatherKing machine) for Rivera’s signature hot-towel shave: a fastidious half-hour procedure that involves no fewer than five mummifications in scalding white terry-cloth squares to open the pores. A back bar made of local cypress is coming soon; customers are invited to finish their appointment with a glass of Abita Amber, brewed just across Lake Pontchartrain.
“I wanted a shop that embraced tradition but has a current feel,” said Rivera, who, with mystique befitting a refined practitioner of a timeless art, will admit only to being in his early 30s. “You see shops that started in the 1950s, but they’ve stayed that way.” Hurricane Katrina washed away many of those establishments, creating a demand for new arrivals like Rivera.
Rivera has taken to mixing his own pre-shave oil and, because he hopes to bottle it one day, divulged its contents only off the record. (This customer can testify that the man knows what he’s doing.) At $30, his shave costs more than his haircut, but on the day I visited, his appointment book was full with everyone from politicians to restaurant servers.
“My brother is a pilot at the mouth of the river,” said Walt Leger III, an attorney who represents the district in the Louisiana House of Representatives, as Rivera hung up his jacket. “Soon as he comes home, this is the first place he goes, get cleaned up. Through Cesar, you can catch up with everybody — he keeps track of my brother and my brother-in-law for me. Women have developed so many more ways of interacting socially. Men have fewer outlets. It’s a real community thing.”
Magazine Street Barber Shop, 4224 Magazine Street, New Orleans; (504) 267-7823.