Demand for haircuts begins early in Omaha’s up-and-coming Blackstone District. It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, and customers have already begun queuing inside the Surly Chap’s renovated storefront near the intersection of 40th and Farnam streets.
The Surly Chap Barbers offer a traditional barbershop experience—affordable men’s haircuts, shaves, and beard trimming—that have attracted a rapidly growing clientele. They don’t offer reservations. It’s first-come-first-serve only.
So, with obvious need for more manpower, they hired a British fashion model to bolster their crew of tattooed, male barbers with slicked-back hair. Lauren Garrison isn’t a chap, but she is a barber with plenty of sass. It rolls off her lips in a thick British accent that she describes as a “mix between East End and country.
“Have a seat, darling,” she beckons. I catch a glimpse of tattooed cursive script inching across her chest. Her hair is tied up in an immaculate top knot. She has bright red lipstick, long painted eyebrows and big eyelashes; huge hoop earrings, designer sneakers, and a chic black-and-white outfit inspired by the latest London fashion.
Garrison describes her own style as a little bit of everything: classy, modern, retro; inspired both by English trends and passersby on the street. But with her clippers now readied, she is all about the customer. She asks what I want to do with my hair. Garrison cuts conservatively, then re-trims as needed to ensure satisfaction.
Garrison was born in the British countryside and spent most of her youth in London. Her “mum” helped her get into modeling at age 14. After various gigs, she hit the catwalk of London Fashion Week as a high-schooler. At 18, she narrowly missed the final cut to advance to Britain’s Next Top Model.
Her father’s side of the family hailed from Nebraska, and she had visited before. A Navy man, he relocated to Colorado. Garrison moved to be with him after finishing high school in 2012. Culture shock didn’t fully set in until she later moved to Lincoln.
“Oh my gawwwd,” she says. “I’m out in the sticks!”
Still interested in pursuing a career related to fashion, she decided to study at the College of Hair Design in Lincoln. That’s where she met the Surly Chap Barbers. They were among the many professionals scouting for talent (only to overlook the female trainees, she says). Fate—along with Garrison’s surly attitude—intervened.
“They didn’t pay much attention to us, so I threw a fit.” she explains. “I said ‘Why aren’t there any barber shops interested in talking to me? And my teacher went and told them.” Then, the recruiters came and talked to her. They liked her enough to invite her to a job shadowing session.
“I ended up just loving them,” Garrison says. Soon after graduation she had a job in Omaha. Here Garrison found the pace of life more agreeable, faster than Lincoln but still fairly relaxed. She fell in love with neighborhoods—Blackstone and Benson with their plethora of hip bars—which reminded her of home.
Unfortunately, a day doesn’t pass without unwelcome commentary on her accent, questions about her kinship to the Queen of England, whether she lived in a castle, teasing about the Revolutionary War (she admits history was not her best subject in school), and other “bloody irritating” comments conversely familiar to any Omahan traveling afar, a la “Did you ride a cow to school? Are you a farmer? Etc.”
She misses British food—bangers and mash, curries, fish and chips, full English breakfast—but was pleased to discover elusive British-style Heinz beans in tomato sauce, Ribena, and a sparse selection of overpriced British fare at local groceries. She relies on annual trips back to see her mother to satisfy her homesick yearnings. In the meantime, she has come to appreciate the finer side of American cuisine: fast food, deep-fried Oreos, Twinkies, Gushers, and Fruit Roll-Ups.
I ask what the tattoo on her chest reads.
“Dream like you’ll live forever and live like you’ll die today,” she says.
For now she’s content in Omaha. “If I was home, I wouldn’t have gone to barber school, or met the boys from the shop, or even realized how much I love Omaha,” Garrison says. “I’ll definitely be setting up my nest here for a while.”
That’s good news. My hair grows pretty fast and I’ll need to see her soon for my next haircut.
Visit surlychapbarbers.com to learn more.