Obits and Pieces: Nº. 5 Lluis Rivera’s Barber Shop
Sr. Rivera’s was where I first went to get my hair cut when I arrived in Barcelona almost half a lifetime ago and I continued to give it patronage throughout the next decade. In fact, the very few times for circumstantial reasons that I had to get sheared somewhere else, it always felt like a betrayal. You see, apart from being my barber and an impeccable gentleman, Don Lluis was also my unofficial professor of Catalan, philosophy, folklore and etiquette.
Once every five weeks or so I would make my pilgrimage to Carrer Llibreteria, a very picturesque medieval street tucked away behind the cathedral and if I was lucky, there’d be a few people waiting and I could sit back and enjoy the banter. There was very little that was fancy or modern about the place, simple white tile on the walls, sturdy wooden shelves and seats and maybe a propane heater in winter.
Lluis never wore the standard white uniform of the barber nor an apron, just a plain shirt open at the neck and a pair of slacks. At first, he used to always have an unlit cigar butt stuck in the corner of his mouth but eventually gave that up. I always suspected that it was the same cigar and that he’s since had it stuffed and mounted in a glass case in his home. He also had the habit of snipping his scissors in the air between cuts, a tick that would have seemed menacingly Sweeney Toddish had it been anybody else but Lluis.
The man knew my scalp like a seasoned cartographer and was never fazed by the double crown or the cable-like consistency of my follicles. He’d casually slice through clumps of the unruly fibers, converting my shaggy mop into a neat and dapper piece of topiary. The fact that I liked my hair short was always appreciated. Once a Canadian backpacker with a shoulder-length bob popped his head in the door and asked for a trim. Lluis (with a little translation help from yours truly) gently directed the lad down the street to his competition. He then looked at me in the mirror, shrugged and said “Aquet no era client meu.” – basically “That wasn’t a customer for me.” Slight disapproval in his tone but ever vulgar, always respectful.
The atmosphere in the establishment could best be described as ‘traditional male’. Honestly, if there was a woman present, she was usually a mother accompanying a kid waiting for a trim. Quite often the majority of people sitting in the shop wouldn’t even be customers. Many of the old lads who lived in the neighbourhood would just drift in and sit down for a chat, probably getting a break from their wives. And when I say ‘male’, I don’t mean sexist. The conversations ranged from football, politics, local gossip, weather, bloody tourists to (of course) women, with each man taking his turn to hold court with his opinions but always with an air of dignity. Lluis who was the unofficial chairman of any debate, wouldn’t have allowed any crude talk in his place of work. I have a huge fondness for listening to elderly men imparting the wisdom of the experience that they have accumulated over their lifetimes. That’s not to say I believe or agree with all of it. It’s often bollocks but fun to listen to nonetheless. I still remember Lluis gazing melancholically out of his shop window onto the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter and saying “This isn’t a real neighbourhood anymore, it’s a theme park for tourists.” It’s a line I have stolen and used myself on many occasions.
Please don’t get the impression however that Don Lluis was a dusty old dinosaur. Like all true gentlemen, he could rise to the occasion and surprise you when you least expected. During my first summer here I was visited by the “Chicas Alegres", a couple of Irish girls who were going to crash for a week and ended up staying for the whole summer. And when I say a couple, I mean a couple. V and S were what Lung the Elder and I referred to as “aw-lesbians” because when you told a guy that they were gay, he would inevitably go “Aawww!” Both of them were pretty damn cute.
Now S had a head of hair that most girls would give their hind teeth for. Pitch black and silky, it fell in perfect ringlets to her slim shoulders. So it came as a surprise to everyone when she decided to get rid of it and actively seek a buzz cut. When they inquired as to where I usually went to get cropped, I was a little hesitant to point them towards Lluis’ shop. It was hard to envisage these two pale exotic creatures with their black platform sandals and dog collars, walking through the front door to the withering stare of the proprietor. It turned out that I had underestimated all three of them.
On returning to the apartment, both girls were all smiles and compliments about Lluis. He had apparently greeted them with mild surprise but zero hostility and this turned into a wide welcome when they mentioned that they were friends of mine. When V (who spoke Spanish) explained what they were there for, Lluis balked and touching S’s glossy curls with reverence, begged them not to do it. But V was nothing if not persuasive and after a little bit of gentle egging on, he set to work with the electric clippers wincing a little with every stroke. However, by the end of the exercise, Lluis was tilting his head to one side and saying “Actually that’s not half bad.” My admiration for the man grew one notch higher.
I imagine that he’s happily retired now and hopefully has found somewhere of his own to sit and chat about nothing in particular. The sad thing is that his old shop is now one of those innumerable tacky souvenir stalls where a Pakistani shopkeeper will sell you a brightly colored Mexican hat, an injection- molded plastic torro or a knock-off Leo Messi football shirt, all made in China, all at exorbitant prices.
Lluis would have really hated that although I could never imagine him being in any way coarse about it.
So I salute you Lluis Rivera, for your likes will not be seen again.