Monday, April 21, 2008

City Snapshot: Barber Shop Quartet

A few years ago when I worked out of town a lot I had occasion to visit much of small town America. While this sounds quaint, and sometimes was, very often it was depressing: Main Street after Main Street lined with vacant store fronts, the businesses all moving out to strip malls by the highway or vanished completely due to corporate super-stores. Yet there always seemed to be a handful straggling mom & pops that remained–the local barber shop often among them. To me the survival of the barbershop is hope that as a society we still crave a kind of familiarity, service and sense of community that cannot be found on the Internet or be recreated by Wal-Mart. Barbershops have become a cultural icon preserving a unique a form male bonding in which men actually talk to each other. We trade stories, seek advice, give opinions, brag, lie, or just listen.

I still get my hair cut at a real barbershop, although I wasn’t always keen on them. As a kid my father used to take me to a shop in our town where all of the barbers were Italian and had names that rhymed and ended in "o": Lino, Dino, Nino and Lee. (Lee didn’t rhyme but he was the shop owner and the best looking of the lot.) When I was very young, I didn’t mind going so much because it meant a piece of Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum at the end. But as I got a little older, the hairdos of the 70s did not lend themselves to barbershop stylings and I often felt out of place in this shop with its car publications and girly magazines, where my father chatted away to the barbers in Italian, where the accents I struggled to understand reminded me of everything foreign and strange about me. By time I was about 8 or 10 I put up a real fight when it was time to get my hair cut. Eventually my mother agreed to let me go to one of those then new "unisex" hair salons. And so these traditional father/son outings ended for me.

After I moved to Christopher Street in the early ‘90s, strapped for money, I gave barber shops another chance. I found one in the neighborhood and eventually my own regular barber, Richard, who still cuts my hair to this day. What I found there was the sense of community that caused men to literally harmonize with each other 100 years ago. Like I said, the conversations are quite different than my father’s barber shop (although those were in Italian, so how do I know?) Instead of sports, women and cars, at my barber shop it’s Black Party, Broadway theatre and who we’ve checked out in the locker room at the gym. I always joke that I’ve been with Richard longer than any boyfriend, and indeed, he knows intimate details of all my relationships, and I his. He’s acted as my therapist, confessor, and gossip girl. I always get kiss hello, a good laugh, a sympathetic ear and leave feeling and looking great. All this for $15 a cut.

Below are some shots of barber shops around Manhattan where they seem to thrive. Perhaps this is because even in the big city we still need some small town familiarity.

(Above) Mr. Joseph's on Greenwich Avenue between Christopher and 10th with a facade untouched for probably 40+ years.

Sammy's on Amsterdam at 106 Street. Note the Spanish signage catering to the Morningside Heights neighborhood.
Chelsea Gardens on West 23 Street, one of the storefronts in the notoriously gay, art deco garden apartment complex of the same name.
Reamir on Columbus at 74th Street caters to a yuppy crowd. Note the crystal chandeliers inside.

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At 2:49 AM, Blogger Maddog said...

When I left NYC in 2003 I had been with the same barber since 1998. When I returned in 2006 he had left the shop he had been working in and I haven't been able to find him. I've bounced from place to place since searching for someone to replace him.

Of course it didn't hurt that he was cute. But that's beside the point.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger TCho said...

"notoriously gay"? I have to check that place out! :-)

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Todd HellsKitchen said...

What a fun post! Pics, too!!!


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