A Barbershop by Isaac HaberNeighborhhod Economy

There are countless barbershops in the Egleston neighborhood. Walk down Washington Street and you’ll pass a barbershop on nearly every block, sometimes more than one, and this is not even counting all of the beauty parlors and hair salons. Depending on when you visit a shop, it could have completely different atmospheres. Some of the barber shops in the Egleston neighborhood are sort of barren in their decor, and some of them are quite lively and busy in appearance; others are somewhere in between. One that I spent some time in had multiple TVs hanging throughout the shop, usually playing a mix of baseball, CNN, and movies.

It’s walls are adorned in posters, such as of Tom Brady, the Patriot’s logo, or the Boston skyline. Counters are packed with hair products and barbers’ tools; they aren’t cluttered, but they are certainly full. In another shop that I passed, a small cellphone accessory store sits in the back.

 

Layouts depend on the shop. Inside the one I spent time in, the main room has around 8 barber chairs, then at the back of the room there is a step up to a level with two more chairs and some benches for people to sit in while they wait. The back chairs don’t have as much around them and, even when the shop was pretty full, they often were not in use. There is also a door in the back to the bathroom and another to a staff room. There are also two very cushy couches at the front of the shop under the windows which customers usually occupied.

 

Time of day changes the feel of a barbershop. At 10 AM on a Wednesday, it’s slow and not a whole much happens. This is in stark contrast to the atmosphere at a busier time. As I walked into one shop a little before 2 PM on a Friday I wrote:

The place is bumping. There are 6 barbers, and everyone one of them is working. Additionally, 5-8 people are sitting in chairs either waiting or hanging out. CNN, baseball, and Spanish music are all playing pretty loudly and there is a loud, continuous hum of talking amongst the barbers and customers.

On days like this the stress of the barbers was palpable. Every chair was full and more people were waiting, often for quite some time.

 

Although there would sometimes be people in a shop who were just there to hang out, for the most part people seemed to come to the shop with the intent of getting their hair cut and leaving. In a typical hour, I might see:

One white guy is getting a haircut. (He is the only white person in the barbershop.)

One woman sitting on a bench who had been there for well over an hour.

One man walks in singing and dapping people up. He is in the shop for probably 25 minutes. He never got his haircut, never cut anyone else’s hair, and never used the bathroom. He did walk into the back room at one point.

One older barber who does not have a customer. He just keeps reading the newspaper and rearranging his things.

There is a kid in the owner’s chair but the owner was gone for at least 15 minutes. This is the kid with the woman who had been there from the beginning. They had been there since before we got there, which means he was waiting for a haircut for at least an hour, likely more.

Some people would be in the waiting chairs for so long that it would seem as though they were there for leisure, however most of them would end up getting a haircut eventually, and then leaving.

 

Slow days mean different things for different shops.

On slower days, many of the other Egleston barbershops were similarly empty, but some would have more going on. For example on one slow day two shops were nearly empty, one was about half full, and another had just a few people in it. All the shops are about the same size, but one of them (the one with the phone accessory store in the back) somehow managed to always be full of people. There was also often loud music playing and they had a lot of flashing lights. This “slow” day was no exception, and it was full of people. 

 

Barbers are a range of people. The owner at one shop is a Latino male in his late 20s to mid 30s with a beard, who often wears a flat-brim hat. He’s a bit under average height and both his arms are covered in tattoos. Most of the barbers wore similar street clothing. This could include vests with pockets (for scissors, combs, etc.), jeans, basketballs shoes or sneakers, t-shirts and tank tops, button down shirts, and slacks. Many of the younger barbers wear flat-brim hats with various logos for sports teams. In one shop where I spent the most time, there was only one barber who was probably above the age of 35, the rest of them being young and fit. Many of them wear black rubber gloves for hygiene. One barber demonstrated this by prodding the beard and face of a customer. He said that "inspectors come if someone gets fungus in their hair or something," so it’s important that the shops keep this in mind.

 

Each barber, as is true with most professions, has a story for how they ended up in their shop. One spoke extensively about his life in New Orleans prior to coming to Boston. Looking at Google Maps one day, he zoomed in and out on streets and scrolled around with his fingers. He realized his house wasn’t there anymore because Katrina destroyed it. He explained to me that following Katrina, his whole neighborhood was never totally rebuilt. He “walked” through the various neighborhoods on his phone, including the 9th Ward, the 13th Ward, and the French Quarter. Looking at the current state of those places, he pointed out the contrast between the 19th and 13th Wards, places where more impoverished people once lived and the completely restored neighborhoods such as the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. Currently, this particular barber is on probation until 2018, and the moment he can leave Boston, he plans to. He wants to go back to New Orleans or possibly Atlanta, which he referred to as the “black Hollywood.” He also pulled up Puerto Rico on his phone. That is where he was born and he wants to move back someday, but admits that he probably won’t. He hates Boston’s weather and culture. While we were talking he was zooming in on New Orleans on his phone looking for his childhood home. When he found it he jumped up in excitement and starting rapidly speaking Spanish to the other barbers, walking around the shop and showing them his phone.

 

After spending time in these barbershops around Egleston, it became clear that there is no singular image of what an Egelston barbershop, barber, or barber shop customer looks like and is. However, based on their dense presence and high traffic, it is clear that barbershops play an important role in the neighborhood.