Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Atlas Barber School


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.)

last haircut

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.


pattycake said...

WOW I had no idea the history of this place. Great story jeremiah... and a sad one. Thanks for the photo credit: although it was a sad sight to see.

EV Grieve said...

$11,000 for that space?

Wow. Wonder what that Duane Reade is paying on the corner of 10th.

The Death Star will claim many more victims before it's up and running. This is just the beginning.

David said...

That is so upsetting! I walked by there on Saturday and had no idea they were closing. A good barbershop is getting harder and harder to find in this salon-dominated city. Where are they going to train the barbers of tomorrow now?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


esquared™ said...

Greedy landlords are greedy.

Who needs a $5 haircut or shave nowadays when one can get a $50 one , or purchase a kit for ~ $500

And they call us elitists.

James C. Taylor said...

Anonymous 10:16 sums things up pretty succinctly.

I used to go to Neighborhood Barbers on 9th, but got annoyed when the guy cutting my hair would disappear for minutes at a time to run an errand or move a parked car or chat with someone leaving me in the chair.

Astor Place is always a pot-luck situation, and my last haircut there was a disaster. The guy ignored my suggestions and left me with almost no hair at all. Fortunately it's growing back.

I never even noticed Atlas. If I'd known about their low prices I'd have definitely tried it. What a sad story.

JAZ said...


I've been going to Ilya's Barber Shop on Lispenard for the last 10 years or so. For the past 3 of those years, I pretty much hold my breath every time I turn the corner.

Is this really what we're reduced to now, gaining our pleasure from the fact that our no frills barbershop isn't yet covered in plywood, awaiting it's transformation into a more Wisconsin friendly establishment?

RIP Atlas Barber School - the death of one is the death of them all

Anonymous said...

EV Grieve is right. This is the beginning of another massive tsunami for the area - as if it hadn't already swept through a couple of times already. However, I expect Death Star will wipe out pretty much everything we know within the immediate area. But when East Village Cheese closes, blood will flow. Someone will pay for that one. Yeah, I'm an elitist...I like cheese...been shopping there for 20+ years. I can't buy cheese at a fucking Marc Jacobs funny enough. Yet.

Anonymous said...

When I was a grad student at NYU in the mid-1990s and was living on half a shoestring and some prayers, I got my hair cut there a few times, and it was great. They were friendly, the student barbers did an excellent job, and it was SO affordable. New York is rapidly turning into Venice. Not. Cool. At. All.

But hey, if only 40,000 more people, a smidgeon out of New York City's 4+ million eligible voters, had pulled the levers for Thompson instead of Bloombuck$...heck of a job!

Caleo said...

Although I haven't been there in several years, I used to be a regular in the 90's.
Another one bites the dust.
As Grieve said, when that new tower goes up, this neighborhood is going to change in the blink of an eye.
We haven't seen nothing yet. The new tower is going to initiate a cascade of closures to make room for all things high end and luxurious.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I had no idea of the history of this place, either. So sad...and so tired of reading sad stories. It seems the businesses that have been going strong for so long in the last century are suddenly vanishing all at once. Every day, another element of the city is lost and I wonder if NYC will lose its soul forever.

Marty Wombacher said...

I never got a chance to visit this place and now I never will. That last photo really puts it all in perspective. Fuck.

chris flash said...

This is really sickening.

$11,000 per month = >73 haircuts a day just to cover the fucking rent. Never mind having money left to cover other expenses, including LIVING.

If landlords were not rewarded with the ability to write off losses due to lack of rental income from commercial spaces they have caused to be vacated, and if more folks simply chose to BOYCOTT whatever took the place of a long-time neighborhood establishment, this would less likely to happen.

chris flash said...

Anonymous 1:04:

Don't be fooled about the first Bloomberg election. Thompson was not really running vs Bloombucks. He was a SHILL candidate!!

Ken Mac said...

Still plenty of old school barbers around. I get my cut at the joint on Sullivan at West 3rd. They cut Vinnie "The Chin" Gigante in the day, and all the mobsters. It's just down the block from the old mob social club that is now a tea shoppe. Oh, the humanity.

Anonymous said...

I just had my hair cut on Friday. Had no clue it was about to close. I've been going there regularly for over 10 years. I was continually shocked the $5 price never went up. I occasionally got barbers who spent too much time gabbing on their phones or were trying to be quick rather than careful. Fortunately, my cut is hard to screw up.

I was seeing some of the same barbers in there for years. Obviously they weren't still students. I guess they just liked cutting hair for small tips, or the company.

I don't know where to go now. I have been to other places occasionally when I needed a cut and Atlas was closed, but I don't know which to turn to regularly.

Shocking to see all the chairs in the dumpster so quickly. What will become of all the people there?

I'd say the 10th Street annex was around until at least c. 2005. I was sent over there once when the 3rd Ave one was full.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i'm fucking sick of it, too. May was a rough month.

what happens to us with all of this? do we just get more depressed, despondent, disempowered? or does the pressure build and will we soon explode?

gabriel said...

This is what we do, now.
This is the way it happens, now.

We prep for surgery, snap on our gloves, break out our sledgehammers, and tear down the all the old, dirty things, layered over with memories like jawbreakers or subway-station paint. We pave it over, steamroll it flat, chrome it up, and slap on our price-tags.

Then we build a gallery in the center of it all -- let's call it a "memorial" -- and we hang our paintings and photographs, of how it all used to be and how it all used to look and how it all used to feel. Our gory glory days.

And we cater an Opening: cheap wine and plastic, paparazzi and folks with funny glasses and unfunny affectations. Myself plus one, on the VIP list.

And we sell the paintings and photographs... for a profit, naturally, 'cos there's nothing and no one left to donate the proceeds to.

And we curate a tote-bag commemorating the opening of the closing of everything. And we sell that, too.

And we laugh and laugh and we march through the streets (deliciously car-free) with sparklers in our champagne bottles, collars popped and shirt-tails untucked.

"Not with a bang, but a whimper."

Caleo said...

Unfortunately, exploding won't accomplish anything.
I don't want to sound defeatist, but this is the nature of the beast at this time. New Yorkers voted for Mike, and this is what we get. And as the comments in one of your previous posts shows, there are apparently quite a few New Yorkers who are happy with the way things are rolling.
Those who are most responsible for all of this don't listen to popular explosions anyway. Their feet barely ever touch the street, let alone engage with everyday people.
The pendulum eventually swings back in the other direction... but it hurts like hell to have to live through all of this anyway.
At this point I'm beginning to see that unique cultural moment, say from the late 60's through the late 90's, as an unusual exception.
We have to accept the possibility that New York's current transformation may well last for quite some time, decades even. Once the wealthy dig their heels in, they rarely let go. And they really believe the whole city is theirs to remake as they see fit, whatever the cost to working people, native or transplant.

Bernie Mooney said...

Goddammitsomuch. I've been going there for the last 6 years or so ever since my barber of over 20 years retired.

Anonymous said...

Whaddya mean "long hair 70s?"I used to get my hair cut there back in the early 70s alla time.

Anonymous said...

I drop by this blog once every couple of months when I am feeling sentimental for the city I grew up in and left behind ten years ago only to be reminded why I left. It is like everyday little napalm bombs are being dropped on my youth. And when I am feeling particularly bad I think of my mom who grew up in Chelsea during the late 30s, 40s and 50s. If it blows my mind I can only imagine what it does to hers. Thanks for the great work Jeremiah. You are one of the few doing the invaluable work of documenting for posterity the piecemeal destruction of a once great city. And yes, it is destruction. A weird upward/downward destruction.

Anonymous said...

I literally just walked down there to get a haircut two hours ago and it was all boarded up. A google search brought me here, a sad day for cheap haircuts.

Shawn said...

+1 what Chris Flash said. Until that tax loophole is dealt with, NEW YORK WILL CONTINUE TO VANISH AT THE HANDS OF GREEDY LANDLORDS!

Anonymous said...

I grew up near there. The history which winds up dumped is horrendous. It is now a city devoid of forward thinking, no creativity, pathetic.

Had I known this was happening, I could have salvaged all those chairs, used the bases and other elements for new furniture creations. Shocking that nobody was there to do this. 20 years ago, people would have grabbed them for re-use. But, then again, 20 years ago, NYC was still a place you could have a shit job or two in and carve out a life for yourself.

This is my furniture page - if you know of anything like this happening, please, please, please don't let history turn into landfill!!!! Let me make something from it!

hurtinNYCpup said...

I just went down to get my haircut and saw the empty space. Came home to see what happened and saw this blog post and now I want to cry. I've been getting cuts at Atlas for 10 years since I've moved into the neighborhood and to see it gone leaves yet another major hole in the NYC landscape.

Great post, but the NYC tears are flowing a bit... AND where the --- do i get my haircuts now!!

Justin Allen said...

This sucks, I wanted to go to this school to learn how to cut hair. I wish it was still open and the rent did not go up but i guess everything happens for a reason. Good post. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to see the Atlas School close. I was hoping to go there for a refresher course. Now...IDK where I'll go. Maybe Sheila will make a new space, but I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I got the shock of my life when I went down last Friday to Atlas for my 3-month buzz #2 cut, to find the place empty. Unbelievable.
The last decent, no-BS, no metrosexual place for a quick and simple cut gone.
It's the endless story of anything worth a damn in NYC.

Anonymous said...

What a disappointment.

Are there any plans to reopen somewhere else in the city.
This place was a great school which provided a valuable service to the community.

Anonymous said...

I am an atlas graduate . This was a great barber school. The school could have been managed much better. The owner (Sheila) was there twice a month. So of course it eventually would go out of business. Maybe if she was there more and updated the school. Maybe raised tuition alittle bit. Could have still made money . I love Sheila she is a great person. But the school could of survived . 17 chairs 3500 tuition , Day and night classes . Your do the math!

Anonymous said...

As a graduate, you have a perspective about the situation that most don't have. Thank you for giving it. Still, it's sad that a business that was around so long went under.

Unknown said...

A great New York institution gone, so sad!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Graduated Atlas Barber School in 1968. Sad to see that the doors closed. In New Jersey you have to go to beauty school now to learn how to cut men's hair. That's B.S.
It was a very cool place and a great chance to learn hair cutting
and shaving

astroboy said...

I think part of the training was having to shave a baloon.