I am sad to report, the Atlas Barber School and shop closed forever this past Saturday after the landlord raised the rent to an impossible $11,000 per month. Just off Astor Place in the East Village, on 3rd Ave. and 9th St., Atlas had been in business since 1948.
all color photos from last day of Atlas
When I heard the news from tipster Marcus, I ran in for a last cut. I talked to Sheila Gray, director of the school. She was too upset to talk much about the closure, except to express frustration about the rent hike and sadness about closing. She pointed to a statue of St. Jude in the back office, a room cluttered with papers and framed certificates, and said, "See that statue of St. Jude? My father carried it everywhere. He's the saint of lost causes." She shrugged as if to say "so much for that."
When I told her that Atlas had kept me in haircuts during my early lean years in the neighborhood, she gave me a hug. (She asked me to wait to post this story until today, when the closure is official.)
The school began at 87 Third Avenue, then moved to Times Square in the 1950s where Atlas, unlike many schools at the time, trained several women barbers. As the Times put it in 1959, "The barber shop, long a sanctuary for the American man, is being invaded by women. And...they are barbers."
Atlas later moved back down to Third Avenue. There it weathered the "Scissorless Seventies," when the barbering world, having survived the female invasion, now panicked about the long hair trend. The venerable crew cut, said many reports, had vanished forever.
the Times Square school, 1950s, Atlas website
But the 1980s turned business around. Said Atlas instructor Lou Bucaria to the Times in 1985, "The future is bright. Although long hair once threatened to destroy the barbering industry as we know it, the future is short hair, more haircuts. Indeed, even women now want the same short haircuts as the men." At that time, the price for a haircut was $2.75.
By 1993, the price at Atlas was $5--where it stayed. Throughout the 1990s, there were 42 chairs at Atlas and "no waiting," with a storefront on 3rd and another running through to 10th Street. At some point, perhaps after 2000, they closed the 10th Street side. It's possible that times had gotten tough again for this long-time survivor and living artifact of another New York.
According to the school's website (now gone), Atlas was "the only barber school still thriving in the old Barber School District, which was once located in the East Village. In its heyday, according to the Museum of the City of New York, The Bowery had as many as two barber schools per block. Today, Atlas Barber School is the only barber school left from that era and it is currently the oldest barber school in operation in New York State."
Lillian Ross visited the school in 1980 to write about it for the New Yorker magazine. She called it "the only classic, shave-teaching barber school left in the city."
click to enlarge
With the loss of Atlas, we have lost the last of a breed--the last barber school of the old Barber School District; the last classic, shave-teaching barber school in the city; and the oldest barber school in the state of New York.
Atlas was in business for 64 years. They offered the cheapest haircuts around--pretty much anyone could afford it.
But none of this matters, because the landlord wants $11,000 a month. After all, Astor Place is changing--a shiny new tower is coming, and shiny new towers bring shiny new people who want all things to be shiny and new. As Sheila noted to me, Atlas and the East Village Cheese shop are the only old-school businesses left on the block--now the cheese stands alone and we have to wonder for how much longer.
I wrote here about Atlas in 2008. At the time I chatted with one of the instructors and asked her if she thought Atlas would last much longer. "She shook her head to say 'who knows'...and wondered about 'that big new building down there,' the Cooper Square Hotel, 'it's so out of place--did they mean to make it look like it's falling over?'"
This weekend, while waiting for my last haircut, I talked to a couple of old-timers. One white-haired man who'd just gone in for a trim, leaned on his cane and turned up his hearing aid when I asked him, "Where are you gonna go now?" He just shook his head and said, "That's right. Where am I gonna go?"
Post-Script: Reader Laura sends in a shot from today--as the school has been emptied into a Dumpster.