BY ROSE ADAMS | When Alex Nuñez’s father, Patricio, returned home one evening in 1994, he asked his 12-year-old boy for an unusual favor.
“Son,” he said, “cut my hair.”
Patricio sat in a chair by the bathroom mirror and Alex stooped over him, gliding a pair of electric clippers over his scalp. When the buzzing stopped, Patricio looked in the mirror and smiled. Alex was a natural.
News of Alex’s barbering skills spread across the Lower East Side, and soon, his tenement building on Suffolk St. became a destination for trims and shaves.
“I started to do all my friends, my school friends, my church friends, the friends in the neighborhood, my family,” Alex said. “I fell in love with it at an early age.”
When Alex was 14, his father helped him set up a miniature barbershop on the tenement’s top floor.
“My dad bought me what I thought at the time was the coolest barber chair,” Alex said. “But it was kinda rinky-dink, really old-school. I guess one of his friends had it in the basement.”
With the addition of a full-length mirror and a tool rack that Alex and his friend built themselves, Alex’s first barbershop was complete.
Since then, Alex has turned his makeshift barbershop into a grooming empire. In 2010, he started Neighborhood Cut and Shave — an upscale barbershop in Greenwich Village. Two more locations, in Prospect Heights and on the Lower East Side, have since opened their doors, and plans are to expand to Downtown Brooklyn in April and to Midtown over the summer.
Alex isn’t the only barber setting up shop these days. While most brick-and-mortar stores struggle to compete with online corporations, the barbering industry has been steadily growing for the last 10 years. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of licensed barbers in 19 states grew 34 percent, according to Maura Scali-Sheahan, C.E.O. of the National Association of Barber Boards of America. More notably, the number of barber schools — an indicator of job opportunity — grew 47 percent. And in New York City, barbershops have begun to crowd blocks.
“There’s definitely been more people in the last few years,” said Dimitri, the owner of Royal Class, a barbershop on W. 20th St. Royal Class is one of about 15 licensed barbershops in Chelsea, where —despite the high density of tonsorial artists — business is as good as ever.
So, what’s all the buzz about? Many Manhattan barbers attribute the uptick in business to today’s popular hairstyles that favor shorter, slicker dos for men — like undercuts, skin fades and well-kept beards. Others point to the influence of platforms like Instagram that pressure men to put more effort into their appearance.
“It’s a social-media thing,” said Ben, who owns a barbershop called Wize Gize, about the coiffure craze.
To keep up with the young and trendy clientele, many new barbershops have adopted a swankier setup. At Hell’s Kitchen Barbers, on W. 56th St., a wall of exposed brick stands behind a row of glossy barber chairs.
“In the ’90s, it was just a chop shop,” said Steve, the owner of Hell’s Kitchen Barbers, which opened in 2015. “Now men want more: They have a beard; they want a facial.” Like many modern barbershops, Hell’s Kitchen Barbers has turned what could be a quick buzz into a luxury experience, offering clients heated towels and complimentary shots of whiskey.
But, in addition to changing hairstyles and the rise of social media, there’s a third reason young men have been flocking to barbershops — namely, because of the male community they offer. Alex Nuñez cites the support system he found at his childhood barbershop as one of the reasons he was drawn to the profession. In fact, Alex met Travis, his close friend and business partner, when Travis wandered in for a haircut in 2010.
“It’s like a home away from home when you know you’re not going to get pressured into anything or bombarded,” Alex said. “You can really just chill and be yourself.”
According to Alex, barbers are trained to listen well and give advice when their clients are in need.
“A lot of the time, you end up being lifelong friends,” he noted.
By the entrance of every Neighborhood Cut and Shave, Alex hangs the iconic “I Am A Man” poster that pervaded the civil-rights marches of the 1960s. By hanging the sign, Alex hopes to foster an open, welcoming space in which men can be vulnerable.
“Empower men to be themselves,” Alex said of the concept. “Doesn’t matter their walk of life. They can just come here and take off their tie — everyone’s in the same playing field — and they can really just be themselves and connect.”
Neighborhood Cut and Shave has locations at 37A Bedford St. in Greenwich Village, 250 E. Houston St. on the Lower East Side and 616 Vanderbilt Ave., in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. For more barbershops near you, check out the list below.
This shop, which opened its first New York City location in February, aims to bridge the gap between a high-end hair salon and the classic barbershop, delivering a fashionable haircut for a reasonable price.
Specialty: Full-service styling menu open to all ages and genders
Cost of basic cut: $55
Address: 10 Downing St.
Chelsea Gardens Barbershop
Chelsea Gardens has been a Chelsea staple since its founding in 1959. Stars like CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and celebrity chef Bobby Flay have stopped in for trims.
Specialty: Offers a range of emerging styles and up-to-date looks
Cost of a basic cut: $22
Address: 255 W. 23rd St.
Hell’s Kitchen Barbers
Hell’s Kitchen Barbers gives clients slick cuts along with quality service, including a hot towel finish and complimentary drinks.
Specialty: Knowledgable staff and a relaxing experience
Cost of basic cut: $25
Address: 667 Ninth Ave. and 410 W. 56th St.
Wize Gize Barber Boutique
Since its debut six months ago, Wize Gize has been serving a wide range of looks in its stylish, 14th St. shop.
Specialty: Well-rounded, on-trend haircuts at a reasonable price
Cost of basic cut: $30
Address: 237 W. 14th St.
This old-fashioned, no-frills barbershop offers clients reliable haircuts and an optional shot of liquor.
Specialty: One fixed price for everyone, no matter your gender
Cost of basic cut: $24
Address: 256 W. 20th St.