New York barbershops and barbershops are open. It doesn’t mean business as usual

On a sticky September Saturday, Linwood Dillard and Shakeya Mervin are working tirelessly on two of their regulars. Both barbers and business partners, Dillard and Mervin cut the hair of residents of Harlem, New York, seven days a week in a white minibus pulled up on Lenox Avenue.

And while the essence of a traditional barber shop remains present, the familiar sounds of buzzing clippers and lively conversations are drowned out in the mobile barber shop. In addition to the hustle and bustle of Harlem, barbers vie to be heard over the loud whirring of the generator that powers the bus.

Many in the beauty industry have found themselves tasked with getting creative to stay in business as the public continues to fight fears of re-infections and emerging variants of Covid-19. Even as New York City has officially reopened, barbers and hairdressers fear a future where their regulars may no longer need their services.

The eccentricity of the mobile hair salon helps attract new business. Credit: Samantha chaney

Dillard, also known as “Da Barber God” by his customers for his razor and trimmer skills, isn’t worried either. “People trust me because everyone here knows us,” he said. “We could be out there and people say, ‘Hey, you’re the barbers on the bus. “So even during the pandemic my clients never left.”

Dillard and Mervin started cutting their hair almost nine years ago at Designz & Lignz Barbershop, a storefront that is now a seafood restaurant called Catch & Grill. After leaving the store in 2017, when gentrification in the area skyrocketed rent from $ 3,500 to $ 8,500, the duo reunited during the pandemic, propelling what Dillard calls the world’s first mobile hair salon. from Harlem. A concept he launched six months before the pandemic now sits near their old barber shop on 128th Street and Lenox Avenue.

“Harlem is my home, and this is my location,” he said. “I stayed in this place during the pandemic, and parking here is kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m back. “”

Although Governor Andrew Cuomo relaxed restrictions on Covid-19 in June, the recovery has been slow for salons and barbers in the city.

Although Governor Andrew Cuomo relaxed restrictions on Covid-19 in June, the recovery has been slow for salons and barbers in the city. Credit: Samantha chaney

The beauty industry, which relies heavily on in-person services, has been devastated by the effects of Covid-19. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between February and April of last year, the number of jobs at career fairs plunged 84%. Even as the industry began to gradually recover in April, the Professional Beauty Association reports that only 93,000 people nationwide were employed at career fairs – up from 569,000 in February. The report reflects the lowest number of salon jobs in more than five decades.

At the Oscar Blandi salon on Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, Whitney Hunt was unemployed for nearly five months. She struggled to pay her rent and buy food. The stylist went from an average of five to 10 clients a day before the pandemic to being lucky if she had three clients in a week.

“When we first reopened, it was two great weeks because no one had a haircut,” she said. “But after that, it was crickets.”

On June 15, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Covid-19 restrictions were lifted because 70% of adult New Yorkers had received the first dose of the vaccine. Restrictions removed from industries like barbershops and barbershops were limits on restrictions like social gatherings, cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing, and contact tracing. Still, many professionals in the beauty industry are struggling to recover from pandemic shutdowns.

A month later, Bobit Beauty Health and Wellness reported that compared to pre-closing sales, 41% of US salon first-quarter service sales declined significantly and 23% of sales were slightly lower than pre-closing. pandemic.

“As a hairdresser, we all felt abandoned,” Hunt said. “We were disposable and we were all a little shocked. It was like we understood, we didn’t need us.”

Beauty was one of the hardest hit industries during Covid-19.

Beauty was one of the hardest hit industries during Covid-19. Credit: Samantha chaney

Although Hunt received unemployment benefits, she said it was not enough. Like Dillard and Mervin with the mobile bus, she too had to find inventive ways to keep working. So, unable to work in the living room, she took her most precious possession – a crate of scissors worth $ 2,000 – and hit the road. “I combed my hair in tents, garages and backyards because I was not allowed to enter clients’ homes,” she said. “I started doing editorial work (styling hair on shoots) which really saved me as it gave me the opportunity to do projects outside of the salon.”

Despite reopening some salons across town, Hunt still struggles to get clients in his chair. “I have clients who refuse to come back to the salon, they are downright scared,” she said. “I can’t get them to come in, and I can’t sell them any (any) security (precautions we take). Some people, after that, won’t set foot in the living room anymore.”

Meanwhile, Dillard and Mervin experienced the exact opposite. Due to the passenger capacity of its minibus, they can only serve one or two customers. But during the pandemic, the mobile hair salon received more appointments than ever before. “We were kind of like superheroes,” Mervin said. “We are!” Dillard interjected, laughing. “That’s why they call us barber gods.”

Cutting hair on a bus he bought for $ 2,500 didn’t come without its fair share of bumpy rides. After being opened less than a year before the pandemic, Dillard knew closing its doors would be financially damaging.

“My bus broke down last March, and I had to have the engine repaired, I got it three days before everything stopped,” he recalls. “I had already run out of money for three weeks and knew I couldn’t just shut down.”

Dillard therefore continued to cut the hair of his loyal client, allowing only one client to board the bus at a time. When things slowly started to reopen, he had no problem attracting more customers to the bus. “Every day someone walks by and the first thing they say is ‘Oh, wow. Is this a barbershop?’” He said. “So, because of the idea alone, it’s already an attention grabber.”

Dillard believes the growing success of the bus, especially over the past year, is because people are afraid to go back to a traditional barber shop. Mervin insisted it’s also about creativity and how they make their customers feel when they get on the bus.

Dillard and Mervin created a mobile hair salon in 2017.

Dillard and Mervin created a mobile hair salon in 2017. Credit: Samantha chaney

“With everything reopening, people can be anywhere, inside a store with central air conditioning, but they’re here with us, that says something … Like Phillip, he’s been coming to me ever since I started cutting my hair, “she said, using her barber duster to gently whip the freshly cut hair from her client’s shoulders onto the floor.

Edinio Phillip, one of Mervin’s most loyal customers, started having her haircut in 2012 when he was in New York on the weekends. After moving to the city for good in 2015, she became his go-to barber. The two have recently been reunited by chance.

“I couldn’t get my hair cut during the pandemic from April to June 2020, and it was just terrible,” Phillip said. “When I walked past that bus and saw her, I was like ‘wow’.”

Everything revolves around the big picture for Dillard and Mervin. “What we’re doing right now is huge,” Dillard said. “It’s scalable.”

The bus can only accommodate one or two clients at a time, helping Dillard and Mervin establish a personal bond with their client.

The bus can only accommodate one or two clients at a time, helping Dillard and Mervin establish a personal bond with their client. Credit: Samantha chaney

“It is [about] representation, ”Mervin said. “It’s not just about barbers. The nail salon technicians who were unemployed are like us and could benefit from this idea. All the services that people pay for are essential, and it’s just a matter of adapting. ”

For Hunt, being out of work for so long because of the pandemic has been an eye-opening experience. This forced her to wonder how essential her services were in the lives of others. “During these times, if people don’t leave their homes, they are sure not to enter a living room,” she said. “I kept thinking that maybe I should have stayed in college like my parents told me.”

Dillard never questioned how essential his mobile hair salon was and has become in light of the growing uncertainties of the pandemic. “We’re barbers, we don’t have nine to five others,” he said. “We don’t have any other income. So when we wake up, the only thing we know is to cut our hair. Nothing’s going to stop that.”

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