It's hard not to stare at the lonely building between Channelside Bay Plaza and Ybor City. For one, its seal bears a cartoon wolf in a zoot suit and the words:
"Lebowski: Home of the Well-Groomed Dude."
Across from the drab and hulking Port of Tampa, the bright yellow structure with decorative neon graffiti sticks out like a fishing lure looking to hook men.
The oasis draws the curious. Is the shop related to the movie The Big Lebowski, the 1998 cult classic that made lazy men heroes?
Pull open the metal door, and a 62-year-old man in a bathrobe greets you with a Budweiser, confirming immediately that it is.
And then some.
The man with the scruffy beard is James Fowler, co-owner of this souped-up garage or "man cave," as he calls it. For work, he dresses as Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. the "Dude," Jeff Bridges' dim-witted slacker character.
The Lebowski Barber Salon is a place where dudes abide, as the saying from the movie goes, where men escape from their wives for a few hours. A place that's more saloon than salon.
Flat-screen televisions, pool tables, foosball and air hockey games, a shoe shine, Harley-Davidson and two scooters scream out Men Only.
For a flat fee of $25, you get a cut, a beverage, "manly MANicure," shoe shine and unadulterated reign of this adult sandbox.
There are tools to grunt at, dartboards to throw at, Craftsman-brand tables to sit at, shiny car grills to stare at and even a driving range to swing at.
Customers are given numbers such as "Dude No. 6" as they wait their turn. They don goggles for the included "hurricane shampoo" given by attractive women in sexy outfits at a station that looks similar to a wet bar.
"That's the reason for the goggles," Fowler said, "to get an unobstructed view."
Even the barbershop's phone number is customized: (813) 221-DUDE.
"It's a pretty good gimmick," acknowledges Sal Piparo, longtime owner of Xanadu Hair Design, a South Tampa beauty salon for men and women.
To be a good barber, he said, you need to give a good, consistent haircut, but you also need to make customers feel comfortable. "It might work for people who don't want to just get their hair cut and leave and want to stay around and play," Piparo said.
Entertainment is what Fowler is counting on. Lebowski is to barbershops what Channelside's Splitsville — which triples as a dance club and restaurant — is to bowling.
"If they don't know what to expect, people walk in the door and their jaw just drops," said Vanessa Gomes, 23, a Lebowski hairstylist. "They say, 'I thought this was a barbershop?' "
Lebowski, which opened nearly two months ago, is among the latest businesses to set up in the Channel District, despite the economy. Powerhouse Gym opened this month beneath the Grand Central condos.
Gomes said almost half of her customers so far seem to be repeat clients. She figures she gives about 20 haircuts a day.
Fowler, a former Portland salon owner, moved to St. Petersburg about a year and a half ago to live in a warmer climate and be closer to his brother, Ken Fowler, 60, a retired former hospital administrator.
Both fans of the Coen brothers film, the Fowler brothers considered opening an upscale bowling alley, which is the setting for much of the Big Lebowski.
Then they went to Splitsville.
"Splitsville really blew our mind," James Fowler said. "And we couldn't do a bowling alley so we did this."
They figured men's barbershops — places with dirty jokes, hot shaves and combs kept in jars of blue liquid — had gone extinct. So why not revive the atmosphere backed by the name of one of the most beloved movies among the 30-plus crowd?
The Big Lebowski is such a well-known film that Fowler plays off its popularity by wearing a bathrobe out to places such as Tampa Bay Rays games and Jackson's Bistro bar on Harbour Island to market his barbershop.
Everywhere he goes, people yell out, "Dude," he said.
Reach Justin George at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]