To the Russian Barbershop!

01/20/2010 3:30 AM |

The most interesting thing about New York’s Russian barbershops is how exactly alike they are. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these places across the city, and all of them very much the same, as if they’d been molded into uniformity by some curious evolutionary process.

This would be less odd if the underlying logic behind their design made more obvious sense. For instance, why should a barbershop also offer watch repair? Why should it keep on hand several racks of garish leather belts for sale? Why should it always maintain a stack of off-brand Italian loafers in the corner next to the cash register? Who do they think, really, is going to buy that floor-to-ceiling mirror, even if it is 50 percent off?

In any case, these are the facts of the matter: Your haircut will cost you ten dollars. This is the price of the most basic haircut at any Russian barbershop. If you are in the market for anything beyond the most basic haircut, you should probably not be at a Russianbarber shop.

When you arrive, there will be a worker out front smoking. When you leave there will be a worker out front smoking. Inside there will be several vinyl chairs sitting amidst a wash of cheap-looking jewelry, shoe-shine supplies, and grooming products of dubious provenance. The effect is roughly that of getting your hair trimmed in a corner of your widower uncle’s attic. Old baseball memorabilia, it seems, should be somehow involved.

Business will be slow. This (along with low prices) is a key advantage of the Russian barbershop. A person rarely has to wait for long. Even when things are busy, however, there will always be one man—typically mustachioed and on the downslope of middle-age—sitting around doing nothing in particular. He seems somehow in charge, but it would be difficult to say why. Sometimes he works the cash register. More often he plays backgammon and watches soccer on TV. Soccer is always on TV. The radio, meanwhile, is tuned to an all-Russian station you never knew existed and cannot understand. It’s quite pleasant nonetheless.

On the wall above the mirror will be a faded poster featuring headshots of several orange-hued youths and the hairstyles that have been inflicted upon them. The majority of said hairstyles look to have involved heavy use of the electric clippers. Not coincidentally, the same is true of your own hairstyle, which is nice, as it keeps things moving along. There will be little conversation, due in part to the language barrier, but mostly to the fact that neither of you care very much what the other has to say. He asks if you would like him to trim your eyebrows. You say yes, because, well, why not?

Then it’s time for the back of the neck. The electric shaving cream dispenser whirs (at once antiquated and oddly miraculous), the straight-razor scrapes up and down your skin, and then a damp, warm towel is tossed over your head. “Gel?” the barber asks? You decline. He unsnaps your smock and steps back from the chair. The mustachioed man gets up from his game and walks over to the register. You pay him (cash-only, of course) and then step out onto the street feeling a little bit lighter and cleaner than you did 15 minutes earlier.

To visit a prime specimen of the Russian barbershop, head to 333 Park Avenue South.

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