San Francisco Professionals, Part I: the Barber

1512 barbershop

One of my favorite aspects of living in a large city like San Francisco has been carving out my little micro-city within it – finding the places that I return to time and again, and getting to know the people that work there. It has a way of making a large, dense city feel much smaller, and I’ve loved forming relationships with many of the talented people here. One thing that I’ve noticed is that there is a definite theme among all the professionals I rely on – not only are they all very good at what they do, but they all seem to have an “ignore the noise and do it the right way” attitude about them. I’ve decided to profile some of these folks that I have come to know and rely on during my time here. If you find yourself in San Francisco and in need of these services, I encourage you to look them up.

Haircuts, like any other grooming routine, are a very personal experience. They also become a point of stress for many, because you have to entrust this process to someone else. I know they’ve been stressful for me – wandering into a new place for the first time, unsure of how it will go and hoping that you won’t dread the decision for the next month. And even if you get a good one, how can you be sure that you’ll get the same person (or same cut) again? I’ve never been one for complex or trendy haircuts – I just don’t have the hair, head shape, or attitude to pull them off – so I spent a long time trying to find someone I could trust. Someone who understood what looks best on me, and that I could rely on to provide consistently good cuts. I found that person, and then some, in Salvatore Cimino at 1512 Barbershop.

If you didn’t know any better, you might think you stumbled into some new hipster place when you first walk into 1512 Barbershop – there’s jazz on the radio, taxidermied animals on the walls, bottles of brown spirits on shelves, and a beautiful old Koken barber chair in the center. Surely this must be some new, hip establishment, harkening back to a different era when men were men and things were done ‘the old-fashioned way’? SF is full of spots like this – overly hip bars, bougie coffee spots, and so on – but while many spots here try hard to feign authenticity, other places simply have it.

Sal – the owner and sole employee – is exactly what you’d imagine a world-class barber to be, and then some. He’s a third-generation barber (his grandfather emigrated from Palermo, Italy), and his 30+ years of experience are probably only overshadowed by his fathers’ – Sal’s dad is 87 years old, and has been cutting hair for 65 of them. He still cuts a couple of times per week in Potrero Hill, where Sal was born.

Sal’s shop is as traditional as it looks, and he approaches haircuts in the same way. While I might say that Sal has been giving me the same haircut for six years, he would tell you that he’s never given me the same haircut twice. Sal cuts hair with the methodology that each cut should be designed for the individual, not picked out of a catalog or off of a celebrity. Changes in my weight, age, hairline, and even the weather play into how Sal approaches my hair. He also cuts hair dry – with the same set of scissors he’s used his whole career – in order to ensure a more accurate result. He does straight razor shaves, too, if that’s your thing.

For these reasons, it’s probably best to find a different barber if you’re looking for any specific hip haircuts or have a very particular vision for what you want (for example, he’s been calling this cut the ‘Hitler Youth’ long before the tiki torch incident, and refuses to give it to anyone because it simply ‘looks bad’). It’s best to not approach Sal with an example of what you want your hair to be, but let him use his experience to determine what’s best for you. Putting this level of trust in a stranger may be slightly nerve-wracking, but the result is forming a relationship with your barber in which you don’t have to think about your hair at all.

While these are all great attributes for a barber to have, what makes Sal truly interesting is that he is skilled at more than just cutting hair. Beyond having years of experience riding motorcycles and hunting big game, he’s also a skilled distiller. Like cutting hair, making spirits is another skill that has been in his family for over 100 years. Sal grew up making wine and grappa with his grandfather, and now uses these skills to distill whiskey and other spirits. His products had a bit of a cult following for a while – they were available at some of the most elite bars and stores in SF, and were even distributed internationally – but eventually Sal said that the process got “too complicated” and took the fun out of it. He still makes spirits, but is back to doing so as a hobbyist.

All of these facets – the father-to-son tutelage, the background in booze, hunting, and other quintessentially many pursuits, with a dash of curmudgeon-ness towards new, hip things – make every trip to Sal everything you’d hope an old-school barbershop experience to be. Sometimes we have long conversations, occasionally we have a drink, and other times we don’t talk at all and I’m out in 15 minutes. It’s exactly what I’d been looking for, and it has turned one of my most dreaded chores into a favorite routine.

If you’re interested in stopping by 1512 Barbershop, I highly encourage you to make an appointment online, about one month in advance. Head in with an open mind, enjoy the ambience, and say hi to Sal for me.