The “OPEN” sign shines brightly outside Aaron’s Barber Shop located in St. James on Long Island, NY. “Hair designers for men & boys.”
A reception desk greets customers amid the bustle of the shop. A jar filled with lollipops sits at the counter of the desk. Three shelves next to the desk are stacked with magazines. A woman smiles from the cover of The Entrepreneur.
A family of hair designers are busy trying to make their customers look and feel good.
Two barbers work under the watchful eyes of Aron Sulimanov — Americanized as Aaron, who the shop is named after. Aron has been in the barbering game since he immigrated from Uzbekistan. He was taught by an Italian barber named Bruno. Aron beams when talking about his mentor. “I worked under Bruno for three years, and then worked in Woodside and Sunnyside in Queens, New York for a year and a half.”
After working for other barbershops, Aron decided he wanted to start his own. He opened Aaron’s Barbershop in 2003.
Simon Khaimov, an older bearded man, flaps out a cape and drapes it over his client.
Simon is the cousin of Aron’s father, and lives in Whitestone, Queens. He credits his own father with teaching him how to cut hair back in Uzbekistan. And now, Simon’s three sons are all barbers — one of them, he says proudly, works in Manhattan and is doing well.
All of the barbers at Aaron’s live in Queens. Aron picks up Simon and Steve Raphael, another barber and the husband of Aron’s sister, from Main Street in Flushing at 7:30 a.m. to get to Long Island by 9:00 a.m., when the shop opens.
Inside the shop, Aron sweeps the floor top to bottom, so the place is kept bright and clean. Renovations were done three months ago and the once baby-blue walls are now a bright shade of raspberry.
The shop specializes in haircuts for boys and men, from one-year-olds and to 100-year-olds. Aron’s barbers can and will do any style, shape-up, flattop and design the customer might want.
“The most popular styles right now are shape-ups and razor fades,” Simon said. “Hot towel shaves are also popular; we do massages as well.”
As Simon likes to say, “Your hair is my hair.”
Steve, who works the third station, peers out the front door and squints at a man walking in. His face lights up when he recognizes his customer from a month ago, looking unruly with his hair grown out and puffy. “Welcome back, my friend,” he greets his returning customer with a smile, continuing to work on the man sitting in his chair. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” he says, putting the finishing touches on the man’s comb-over fade with a shape-up above his forehead.
Steve wears a white-striped, dusty rose collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and dark-wash, straight-leg style jeans with black Sketchers. He sports the standard teal vest that is issued to all Aron’s barbers, including the boss. The vests are decorated above the left chest pocket with an embroidered cartoon electric razor, with stern furrowed eyebrows and a comb-over pompadour. It holds up a pair of scissors and a brush in its hands and stands between the words “Aaron’s” and “Barbershop.”
Steve asks his customer if he likes his new look. The customer peers into the mirror, admires the faded sides and nods approvingly. The barber unsnaps the teal cape and circles it around the customer with the precision of a magician. The snipped hair on the cape floats slowly to the ground. Steve gives the man a firm handshake. A quick exchange of cash and the man is on his way.
With a devilish smile, Steve looks at his next client, sitting patiently on one of the black cushioned chairs.
They shake hands and Steve continues the friendly banter.
“How’s your fraternity? I haven’t seen your brothers in awhile.”
“Yeah, they’re doing well. I hung out with them yesterday. They might be due for a haircut. It’s only been a month and look at how much it’s grown out. I tried coming in on Tuesday, but you weren’t here.”
“That’s right, but I’m here now. What do you want today? The fade and a crew cut like last time?”
“Yeah. A skin fade and for the top, can I get it a little bit shorter?”
Steve holds up his client’s slightly overgrown black hair and shows him how much he’d cut off.
“Is this where you want it?”
“A little bit shorter.” The fraternity brother points closer to his roots.
“This short?” Steve asks for clarification.
Steve starts working his magic. He uses a razor to map out where the fade should start and where the hair should gradually get more and more noticeable at the top. The razor line circles around the back of his client’s head — a jarring demarcation of hair like the parting of the Red Sea. Steve gently holds the man’s head downwards for a more direct view of his lengthy locks.
Holding a brush in one hand and the razor in the other, Steve buzzes to a level-one skin fade from the nape of the neck to a level three. The change is gradual from a bare head to a crew cut fade. Steve brings the razor up to a level two for the hair on top. The barber’s determination makes his eyebrows furrow — one wrong jerk of his hand can cut off more hair than wanted. Level two on the razor is more forgiving than level one, which is used for a buzzcut. The shortness of each hair follicle makes the ridges of the scalp see-through and pale.
The direction of the man’s hair growth is now visible in its shorter length and travels in a clockwise whorl on the back of his head. His once unkempt sideburns are shaven to make his overall look cleaner.
“I think you’re my sixth guy I’ve given a skin fade,” Steve confesses.
“Really?” The college student chuckles in disbelief that his hair has been in the hands of a novice in the art of skin fades.
“Yeah.” Steve smiles sheepishly. “I’m gonna be honest with you, your hair grows very fast. I saw you . . . three weeks ago, was it?”
During the transformation, the fraternity brother talks about his heritage as a Chinese-American. Steve adds that his next-door neighbor is Chinese, and he gets to try various foods like tofu dishes and homegrown squash.
“I was once at a Chinese wedding. It’s not like us — we have a couple of dishes on the table,” Steve says, comparing the difference between Chinese and Jewish weddings. “You guys have several dishes but it’s in a circle.”
The two laugh about Lazy Susans on the dinner table.
“And the guy wanted to give me squid or octopus-” Steve stops what he’s cutting to look at his client. “I don’t eat that. Certain seafoods, we’re not allowed to eat. If it doesn’t have fins and scales, no. Basically sharks have fins but no scales. It has to have scales and then we can eat it.” Steve puts down his razor and gets out his copy of the Torah from the drawer.
“Oh there’s rules? And a rulebook? What the heck?” The fraternity brother raises his eyebrows and his voice in surprise. “Imagine a book on how to be Chinese, oof.”
Steve leans over to show his client the Torah. “Here, read this. Some non-Kosher fish and some Kosher fish. All of these are mostly Kosher foods that we can eat. But then it states over here: Fish that is Kosher and Non-Kosher.” He points to the page where he’s reading. “It has to have scales and fins. It has to have two.”
“Damn,” the client says. “In Chinese culture, there’s something called shark fin soup, and it’s supposed to be really good for you. It’s very filling.”
“Yeah, it’s very fatty.”
“And the shark fin is so smooth.” The client moves his hands under his cape to emphasize the texture of the shark fin. “It’s delicious.”
The buzz of the razor stops and so does the small talk. “What do you think?” Steve asks. “Do you like it?”
The young man looks in the mirror. “I love it.”
Steve pulls out his hairdryer, points it at the man’s face and the cut hair goes flying onto the floor. He does his magician’s cape trick and pulls out the soft paper towel that was protecting the customer’s clothes. The man gets up from the chair using the armrests. He checks himself out in the mirror again and runs his fingers through his hair. He tilts his head for a better view of the faded sides.
He pulls out a wad of cash from his pocket and tips his barber 20% for their work of art. He holds his hand out for a handshake and places 30 dollars folded together in the barber’s hands.
The fraternity brother collects his belongings from a bench, puts on his black bomber jacket and checks his phone for updates. He leaves the barbershop with a smile and a wave.
On a cloudy gray day three weeks later, Simon sits on the bench awaiting a customer. His gray hair looks tousled. Black rectangular glasses sit on his high-bridged nose. His moustache is a little long, peeking out over his upper lip. He wears a collared, cerulean pinstripe shirt with the sleeves rolled up twice. His silver watch catches the fluorescent lights on the ceiling with every movement he makes. The vest he wears is different from the teal vests the other barbers have. His has a black lining and the front half is light indigo, while the back is decorated with dark peacock-green pinstripes. He keeps the vest half-zipped over his slightly round belly. A keyring chain hangs from the right pocket of his black slacks. His aged brown leather dress shoes have a slight sheen that reflects light from the window.
An older gentleman with a baseball-sized bald spot on the back of his head walks in, his frayed white hair going in all directions. Simon sits the man at his station — the second from the left, between Aron and Steve. He drapes the cape over the man and stuffs a white paper towel around his collar. “Just a trim to make it look cleaner,” the man says.
As more clients enter the shop, Aron greets each one with a smile as he stands behind his barber chair, cutting off a client’s hair with his razor. His stern tan face shows signs of aging, with cheeks speckled from acne scars. He wears black loafers, a light heather-gray T-shirt, gray pants with his keys hanging from his right hip belt loop. His jet-black hair is gelled and combed back to the beginning of a bald spot and he sports a 5 o’clock shadow.
Aron folds over his customer’s ear and maneuvers his razor to get the hair behind it. The man wants an even buzz around his entire almost-bald head.
His area looks like the rest of the light brown wooden stations: a plethora of products sitting on the cluttered but organized shelves. A tall glass of blue barbicide used to disinfect combs engulfs white and black combs floating inside. A green container of Clubman Pinaud Talcum powder, the classic men’s grooming product used for removing hair from the face and neck after cutting, sports its signature caricature of a French gentleman. A tub of Gummy hair gel touts its maximum hold and extreme look. Three different pomade jars are stacked on top of each other, representing a different level of hold and finish, signified by the color of the tub — the blue jar boasts a wet and bright look, while the red touts a maximum hold. Eight different kinds of razors hang by their wires and sit on the station. The hairdryer has its own built-in hole for the nozzle to fit into and the handle stands ready to be grabbed. The customers stare straight ahead at the five-foot-tall mirror with curved corners. The shelf holds a box of Kleenex tissues and the TV remote. Aron changes the channel from a gory movie to a football game.
When he finishes the client’s hair, Aron shakes his hand. The man pays and walks out, triggering the door’s windchimes. Aron organizes the front desk, puts the money away and leaves to go to the restaurant next door. He returns with a full plate of vegetables and steak and goes to the back room next to the children’s automobile-shaped barber seat. It’s 4 p.m. and Aron is finally eating lunch.
Before long, it’s closing time. Closing up the shop for the night means everything must be ready for the next morning. The floors have to be swept, the mirrors wiped down, the stations cleaned to wash away product spills and splashes — then straightened to restore order. After everyone does his share of cleaning up, the barbers take off their teal vests and hang them in the breakroom. Aron closes the door on another day as they leave the barber shop that bears his name and pile into his car. They drive off into the night, amid rush-hour traffic, to get back home to Queens.