By Caitlin Kelly
Alex’s salon is smaller than our living room, barely 200 square feet, with a large window facing north onto Grove Street, a quiet part of the West Village of Manhattan. He used to be on Carmine Street, a few blocks east, but, as it always does in New York City, the rent went up.
So he moved into this space — once a clock repair shop — and re-made it, adding black rubber flooring, a long, narrow metal bench and all the newest magazines.
His salon has three chairs. Such a tiny space, situated on an unusually short, quiet city block, with one assistant sweeping up hair or shampooing, creates a sort of immediate, comfortable intimacy. Strangers a few minutes earlier, clients often end up trading business cards, sharing jokes, laughing together at silly videos on our phones.
Here’s a young executive about to take his pregnant wife on a “babymoon” to the Turks and Caicos. Here’s a woman in her 50s scrutinizing the edges of her pixie cut. Here’s a woman in her 70s, regal and serene, her hair a mini bouffant.
Some men — like my husband (who used to go to Alex when Jose had hair) — prefer a barber shop: quick, in, out, cheap.
Some women prefer the girly refuge of an all-female salon, where they call you honey and bring you cups of tea and it feels more like a dorm room than a business. And some women really don’t like being seen by men, let alone men they don’t even know, with a head full of foils or their eyebrows slathered with dye, mid-tint.
Let alone running across the street looking like a crazy person in this deshabille to plug the two-hour parking meter.
I also like supporting a man who’s stubbornly stayed in business for decades, holding out against brutal rent increases and, this year, a bitter, snowy winter that kept many clients home instead. His shoulders, he once confided, ache every day from the physical demands of his job.
So much of quirky, small-business, independent Manhattan is disappearing beneath the boot of greed and real estate development; streets like nearby Bleecker — once filled with dusty, intriguing shops — are now jammed with tourists buying pricey crap from the Big Name Designers who have totally taken over.
Regulars like me — more than a decade — still ask after Alex’s earlier assistants, like Bree, who long ago moved to San Diego and got married, or Eddie, a gentle soul with bright blond hair, who now works at a salon uptown.
Everyone comes to Alex: gay, straight, Wall Street execs, fragile old ladies from Queens, museum curators, publishers, writers. Few places in New York City — where every zip code has its own tribal markings and style codes and few stray beyond the precincts where they fit most comfortably, whether in Dockers or Prada — bring together so many different kinds of people, generally happy to chat with one another.
Last week, the man sitting beside me quoted Chaucer in Middle English, an experience (of course!) I loved and could identify with, as I’d read Chaucer in Middle English when I was in college.
Everyone is welcome here.
He has a young autistic client who freaks out if he sees the odd mask on the salon wall, so Alex makes sure to cover it up when he comes in. I’ve seen very old, very fragile women in wheelchairs, their patient attendant waiting for them, come to him for their color and style. I’ve seen him lean in and quickly offer one a gentle kiss even though he talks a tough game, and he brooks no bullshit. Make no mistake.
It’s New York City, filled with hundreds of more-glamorous competitors for my business.
I could get my hair cut and colored anywhere else.
But why would I?