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Making the Cut

In an Albany neighborhood stretching from Pine Hills to the so-called student ghetto, four barbershops thrive on a ready-made client base and a sense of community

by Jason Bisnoff on March 27, 2013

 

 

Another satisfied customer: Garrett of Vinny's Barber Shop details Andrew's hair cut. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

To most, the red-and-blue swirling pole is definitive identification of what kind of business is at 219 Western Ave. in Albany. Just in case it isn’t clear, a wooden sign spray-painted with stencil letters outside the cellar space spells it out: Barber Shop. Down three steps and through a door leads to a room that opens into a foyer to the right, while the expanse of the five-chair shop is straight ahead. All but one of the barber chairs are on the left wall, and the other solo chair against the opposite wall is accompanied by multiple waiting chairs that are filled by customers and the occasional visitor just popping in for a chat.

Posters of local sports teams and famous Italian movie stars match the shop owner’s Italian heritage. The essence of the room is distinct: the smells of the musk of aftershave, the talc powder and shaving cream mingle together. The hum of the clippers and buzzers, the swishing of the straight razors, and the snap of the scissors create a backdrop to the loud banter inside. Discussions about the New York Giants or local current events are commonplace, the televisions never stray from ESPN, and a venture into “guy talk” is not out of the ordinary. After a customer grabs a handful of free condoms on the way out, barbers debate about Trojan versus Lifestyles brands and ultra-ribbed versus ultra-thin, before coming down to the unanimous conclusion that there is no distinct winner—they are all bad. In each conversation, every barber, customer and even the guy who sweeps the floors has an opinion.

On a recent visit to this shop there are four chairs being used: two occupied by college students, one by a middle-aged African-American neighbor, and in the fourth, an elderly white man from Niskayuna gets a straight razor shave by the owner, Joseph Federico. The shop was originally opened by his brother, Vinny Federico, in 2002, but Joseph took it over several years ago when Vinny expanded the “Vinny’s Barber Shop” brand to Malta. Joseph describes his shop as a diverse place that plays homage to the classic barbershop feel.

Vinny’s is located in a section of Albany associated with a high concentration of college-student residents. The campus and dorms of the College of Saint Rose are nearby, and with the nightlife and cheap housing it is also the most common residential area for students from the University at Albany who live off campus. This relatively densely populated area of the city also is home to three barbershops in addition to Vinny’s; the four shops coexist but all serve as a source of competition to one another.

“Most of the shop owners don’t really get into the inter-shop stuff,” says Joseph Federico. “We run our businesses and there has luckily been enough business to go around, so there is no use in trash talk or any of that. . . . It’s mostly barbers, and especially customers, who feed into that kinda stuff.”

“We wanna be the best, and honestly I am confident that I can cut as well as any barber around,” says Sammy, owner of Sammy Styles Barber Shop at 785 Madison Ave., just blocks from Vinny’s. “I definitely respect the other shops, and they do their thing but, yeah, I am sure I am not alone in wanting to have the best shop in the area.”

Prior to opening the shop in 2008, in a space where his mother once operated a salon, Sammy worked at different shop on Washington Avenue near the corner of Quail Street. That one, Heads Up Barber Shop, is the neighborhood’s oldest shop. Formerly known as Razor Ron’s, the shop was named after its original owner and Albany’s original celebrity barber. Sammy and his brother, Ray, bought out Heads Up in 2005. Three years later Sammy ventured out on his own.

 

Keeping it sharp: Mike from Vinny's gives a client a fresh, new look. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

He describes his move as a business decision to take his career in a more professional direction, and says, “a major turning point in my career was when a guy came into the old shop and asked me what I was doing there. I answered very straightforward, saying, ‘cutting hair.’ What he really meant was that I had a talent and should be working at a more professional place. I ended up really taking that to heart, and a few months later started my plans on opening my own shop.”

Sammy Styles is primarily a barbershop, but also has a salon in the back room. In front of the shop is the window where Sammy cuts hair on a stage for a price that is higher than any other barber in the shop. Although the space is relatively small—it’s filled with four barber chairs, two vending machines, an ATM and some metal folding chairs in the corner that serve as a makeshift waiting space—a visit to Sammy Styles is a memorable one. Barbers and customers engage in loud and outlandish conversation and are never afraid to make fun of each other. “The shop has a very cool environment, and it’s really what makes us what we are,” says Sammy. “It’s funny, ’cause sometimes I worry that customers may misconstrue us having fun and making jokes at each other as mean, but we all just like to mess around with each other. I think it makes the place loose. . . . We have had customers come back repeatedly because they just like how we run our shop and the vibe of the place.”

A few doors down Sammy’s is the newest shop to the area: Duke’s Barber Shop. It originally opened in 2007 on Delaware Avenue, but owner Michael Duker (known as Duke) moved to Pine Hills because, he says, it was “a better location. . . . It was much better for business with the population and amount of foot traffic in the area.”

Duke’s has a comfortable waiting area with couches that surround a coffee table, giving the room the feel of a living room. The décor is simple: There are pictures of scissors and clippers on the walls, clean hardwood floors, and a wall unit that holds custom-made flat-brimmed hats and hoodies bearing Duke’s logo. A large television provides a back track to the sounds of buzzers and clippers at work.

The shops don’t appear to be fighting for customers; there seem to be plenty of people to go around. Students are integral to the success or failure of nearly every business in this area—some barbershop owners say that students were half to 65 percent of their client base—but the owners insist that students are fickle as customers.

“The students are an important part of our business, but because they only spend four years here and are gone for so many different occasions—they are gone summers and a lot on the weekends—we find that students will always be around but are not reliable, consistent customers,” says Federico. Instead, Albany locals are the customer bases that keep these shops in business. “The students are definitely a major part of our business, but we see that the locals are more reliable as consistent clients,” he adds.

Some owners also say that local clientele are more likely to find a barber they like and continue to give their business to that person. With students it can be hit or miss as they can move on to another shop when little issues arise, such as one cut that they didn’t like or a bad experience at a shop with a barber or other employee. “We get customers in here all the time talking smack about another shop, saying that they got a bad cut here or there, and all I will ask them is: ‘Did you tell them what was wrong?’” says Federico. “I just know that a lot of times a bad cut can happen from even a good barber. If it was my shop or one of my barbers, I would want them to say something so we could make it right.”

Barbershops can serve as a center of a community. They bring people together for the obvious reasons of grooming, but also serve as a place to hang out and participate in both engaging and easy conversation. There is a unique sense of union among the barbers of these four Pine Hills shops. “A lot of us know each other from around the area,” Sammy explains, “and because many of the older, more experienced barbers have worked together or have gotten to know each other from being in the same business for a long time.”