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New barber says COVID, YouTube led him to second career

Frank Rivera, who recently opened up The Barbery in the Hotel Saranac, shows off one of 14 hand positions he learned for shaving while in barbering school last year. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — A year ago Frank Rivera was growing interested in cutting hair after watching YouTube videos in COVID-19 quarantine. Now, after 615 hours of practice and certification, he’s opened a new barber shop on the ground floor of the Hotel Saranac.

Rivera opened the shop facing Academy Street two weeks ago, but business has been slow so far. He said he hopes the summer will bring in people looking for fresh cuts. He rents the shop from the Hotel Saranac, but he runs the business independently. Guests from the hotel can get cuts there, and he anticipates giving wedding parties trims this summer.

Rivera has a deep voice, but soft. He can tell you the word for barber in French and Spanish. His sturdy hands maneuver German or Japanese steel deftly, and he can tell you about the 14 sections of the face identified in shaving. Each comes with its own corresponding hand position.

“To me it’s almost like artistry,” Rivera said. “You look at somebody, and you make a creation.”

He had never considered cutting hair earlier in his life, but retirement, necessity and COVID-19 changed that.

In his prior career he was an energy technician for Exelon, Pennsylvania’s largest energy company. He was the guy they’d call when things would go wrong — gas leaks, power outages. It was stressful and time-consuming, he said, so he retired early and moved to Saranac Lake.

There aren’t many barbers — hair stylists specializing in men’s haircuts and shaves — in the area. Rivera would sometimes travel to Plattsburgh for a cut. After a while, he started cutting his own hair. It didn’t look great at first, but it was free.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Rivera found himself around his house a lot. He couldn’t go out and see friends, and he spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos.

One day he clicked on a video of a guy cutting hair.

“He worked on him, and he looked like a million dollars,” Rivera said. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing what he did to the guy,’ so I clicked on the next video and I got hooked.”

He fell down a rabbit hole, watching more and more hair-cutting videos and finding himself fascinated by the techniques and styles.

As the pandemic dragged on he decided to enroll in barbering school and in June 2020 attended the Paul Mitchell school in Schenectady. He would spend half the week down there.

Six months later he graduated and took the state exam, a tense pass-fail test of his skill. New York requires barbers to be state-licensed.

Examiners walked around, silent, looking over his shoulder and inspecting his work. He wasn’t told how he scored or given any indication if he passed until finally, the state gave him his certificate, which now hangs on the wall behind his chair.

For a few months he was looking for real estate to open in. Then he learned about the shop at the Hotel Saranac, which had been empty since the renovated hotel reopened in 2018.

At the time the shop was full of boxes and paperwork. Now Rivera has it decorated with prints of celebrities getting haircuts — James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney and Perry Como. He said he wanted to create a nostalgic barbershop vibe.

Rivera said he enjoys talking with customers. It’s good to learn about them, what they want and how their hairstyle will be incorporated into their life. He keeps it light and lets the customer guide the conversation, but he also said barbers and bartenders play the role of “therapists” for some.

Nowadays, Rivera cuts his own hair, but it’s tough to clip the back.

“I would like somebody else to cut it,” Riviera said.

He hopes to take on an apprentice at some point. A friend’s son is interested in cutting hair, he said, and he’d love to pass on the skill.

In New York, someone can spend two years in an apprenticeship and if they pass the state exam they are legally certified to cut hair on their own.

Rivera’s work can be seen on Instagram at “bringingittoahead.” Appointments can be set online at thebarbery100.com, and his shop is open Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

With the COVID-19 pandemic Rivera’s shop is limited to himself and the customer. He must disinfect his tools and chair between each customer. Because of this he cannot always take walk-ins, so appointments should be made online.

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