Astor Place Hairstylists has been at the corner of Broadway and Astor since 1939 and, in its 75 years, has become a true “New York Legend.” Currently owned and operated by Enrico Vezza Jr., who took over the shop in 1965 after the passing of his father, the original owner, Astor Place holds a special place in the hearts of many New Yorkers. It is unique to find a locale that offers such storied history, particularly in New York’s Greenwich Village/NoHo area, a neighborhood frequently accused of losing its old-timey, cultural appeal to the forces of gentrification and commercialization. Here, a storefront that boasts a history that spans three generations is about as common as Starbucks are rare.
Astor Place’s reputation for excellent haircuts at a fraction of the cost of your typical Manhattan ‘do has drawn big names over the years. The entryway and inside walls are adorned with signed photographs from their many celebrity fans. The eyes of Stephen Colbert, Macaulay Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Chris Rock, New Kids on the Block, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, LL Cool J, Marc Anthony, Andy Garcia, John Kennedy Jr., and Al Pacino are among the many who gaze at you upon entering. The barbers can tell you stories of their famous regulars like Bruce Willis, popular for his $100, $200, or even $300 tips (“except for when you’d forget to take the hair out of his ears and you’d only get $50”).
Despite its attention from the rich and famous of New York, Astor Place prides itself more on its day to day regulars from diverse backgrounds. A sign at the front desk reads “We speak Italian, Russian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Uzbek, Bengali, Polish, French, Farsi, Moroccan, Portuguese,” and comically, “a little English,” as well as bee bop, hip hop, rap and rock. Needless to say, Astor Place does not discriminate.
When you turn the corner of Broadway onto Astor Place, it is easy to walk straight past the place, tucked down in the basement of a Vitamin Shoppe whose comparatively flashy exterior seems to dwarf that of the small barber shop down the stairs. Upon pushing open Astor Place’s doors, however, a 9,000 square foot living, breathing machine unfolds and almost takes your breath away. The studio, boasting over 60 stylists, operates in a chaotic symphony of buzzing clippers, snipping shears, and humming blow driers. As unexpectedly impressive as it is now, before 2004 when rising rents in the area forced Astor Place to downsize into the basement, one would not have been able to pass by without marveling at its then three stories and, at least in the ‘80s, may have even had to cross the street to just get by the place, as long lines of customers would often wait an hour or more to get a spot at one of the famous chairs. After a slump during the ‘70s when long hair became trendy that had Vezza ready to close up, Astor Place once again took off in the ‘80s: the age of mullets, mohawks, and buzzcuts with etched designs often so intricate they could be considered a work of art.
When I went in for my appointment, I went for a more conservative cut with a simple trim and dry (thank you, Ines!) but the atmosphere alone was unlike any other salon I have been to—and I will say I much prefered Astor’s casual vibe to the sleek, contemporary studios that more frequently dot the streets of New York.
I was admittedly a bit timid upon entering, as the shop, though not claiming in name to be either a barber shop or a salon (with their respective gendered connotations), the barber pole outside made me wonder if I would, as a woman, be out of place at Astor’s. Gender, however, did not appear to be of great concern in the shop. In the chairs around me was what seemed to be an even spread of men, women and children, diverse in age, all being serviced by men and women stylists in no particular pattern. It was nice, I thought, to have the element of gender removed from the equation when in all my past experiences, my femininity was intrinsically linked to the presentation of the salon and hairdresser. Astor’s begged the question, “why?”.
As Astor Place (the street) has recently been in the spotlight due to New York City’s Department of Transportation’s ongoing reconstruction and development project, one can hope that this East Village gem will be preserved. For now, the shop’s future seems promising. As plans for reworked bus lines and subway stations, bike paths and racks, expanded green spaces, and even permanent conversion of roadway to pedestrian space come to fruition, an influx of tourists, students, and New Yorkers from other neighborhoods is more than likely. Objectively, these infrastructure developments seem resoundingly positive. With changes in the use of public space, however, comes changing pressures on local businesses. Given Astor Place Hairstylists’ longstanding history of weathering the times as well as their loyal customer base, something tells me this quirky barber shop will be around for a long time to come.