After hearing the terrible news about the imminent closure of the New Barber Shop in Chelsea, and the loss of its neighbors along the block, I went over for a last haircut. Willie was in the doorway, smoking a brown cigarette and watching the rain. He told me they won't be closing until the end of June, so there's still some time to say goodbye.
I sat in the dilapidated red barber chair and Willie draped me with a candy-striped smock, other men's hairs poking out through the fabric. From a dusty boombox, filmed with talcum powder, the radio station played hits from the 1980s--Bon Jovi saying, "We gotta hold on to what we got" and Journey telling us "Don't stop believing." But it's hard.
As Willie went about selecting the proper tools, he told me he'd heard a rumor that the businesses coming to replace him and his neighbors will be a Duane Reade or a Walgreens and a bank.
How can a little barbershop compete with that? A little barbershop that opens its doors to the downtrodden and the lonely, that lets homeless men sleep on its floor at night, and holds the neighborhood together by providing a space for friendship and connection. Walgreens won't do any of that here.
When Willie cuts your hair, you can hear him breathing. This is work. You can smell his skin and his breath, and it's the smell of grandfathers, familiar and comforting. He takes his time with the cutting. Men come in and sit for haircuts from the other barbers. They talk softly in Spanish. Men come in and complain about the rain and the relentless humidity.
Willie talked about his search for a new spot to reopen his beloved barber shop, but it's hard to find an affordable space these days in Chelsea. Thanks to the High Line and hypergentrification, it might be impossible. We talked about the greed of landlords, the haves and the have-nots.
"My grandfather used to say," said Willie, "you can't eat ALL the sandwiches. Other people have to eat, too."
He's looking for a small space, just enough to fit three barber chairs, with a monthly rent between $2,000 and $3,000. If you know of somewhere, please give him a call at the shop: 212-243-0334.
Willie and his co-workers were featured recently on NY1 News. The shop's co-owner, Manuel Castillo, said it just so, "I blame the landlord but I blame the politicians too, because they no try to do something to protect small business. They want to convert Manhattan into Monaco, rich and famous. In five more years, no working people can live in this neighborhood. In five more, maybe less."
And this is how a block dies in today's New York City:
Death of a Block II
Death of a Block
Saving 9th Avenue
Sweet Banana Candy Store