Astor Place: Styling the American Dream
June 05 2013 12:00 AM

A woman customer receives attention from two hairdressers in Astor Place Hairstylists: one of the pictures in the photo book  Astor Place, Broadway, New York by Nicolaus Schmidt of Berlin. Photograph: Nicolaus Schmidt/Galerie Schmalfuss

By Caspar Tobias Schlenk

Astor Place Hairstylists is a living museum. The walls are covered with fading pictures of the stars — a young Susan Sarandon, her fellow-actors Kevin Bacon and Bruce Willis and others who once upon a time had their hair done here.
Yet you won’t find tourists crowding the place. Up to 50 barbers and hair stylists are at work in the basement of the nondescript-looking building in lower Manhattan.
The electric razors are humming and the scissors are squeaking, while the background music muffles the quiet sound of people chatting. Neon lights bathe everything in a wan light.
It’s above all the staff of hair stylists, who have come to New York from every corner of the earth, that gives the place its atmosphere.
For more than a month, Berlin photographer Nicolaus Schmidt was at work taking pictures between the barber chairs and clumps of hair falling to the floor to capture the atmosphere for his book Astor Place, Broadway, New York.
His book has just appeared in German with the Kerber Verlag publishing house.
He had been planning a book contrasting hair stylists in Berlin and New York and had already been taking pictures when “a New York friend told me I must absolutely see Astor Place, which is simply legendary,” the 60-year-old Schmidt recalls.
After two days there, the artist had reached a clear conclusion — there would be no other photos in his next book than of those in the hair salon in the New York basement.
The reason is Valentino Gogu, Astor Place’s living monument. The Romanian came to America in the early 1980s, and for over 30 years now he has been entertaining the customers with his charm. Among his regular clients is a billionaire and a lady who is now 105 years old.
Gogu, 65, works seven days a week, sometimes up to 12 hours a day.
 “What else should I be doing?” he asks with an impish smile. With no family of his own here, Astor Place is his home. The owners likewise have European roots. Their grandfather immigrated from Sicily and set up the place in 1947.  “To me, the shop represents the original idea of America, and this hair salon is still keeping that promise,” Schmidt says.  “Every era of immigration is represented here.”
For example, many of the barbers come from the former Soviet Union, Latin America and Arab countries and they make their customers feel welcome. On weekends there’s karaoke, or sometimes somebody will sit down at a piano and play a few tunes.
Jessica, one of the hair stylists, says this about the atmosphere: “I want to make people happy. We laugh together. And we cry together.” Often, customers simply stop by just to chat.
And the clientele comes from every different social level. At $16, even those with normal incomes can afford a visit. “You can’t find such a great price even in New York’s surrounding areas,” says Jessica, who has been at Astor Place for 16 years now.
Originally the hair salon was on the ground floor, but then had to move down into the basement, no longer able to afford the expensive rents. Now the ground floor is a shop for expensive vitamin supplements.
Possibly it’s for this reason, the basement location, that the salon seems like a relic of bygone times — and still attracts people like Sam. The 27-year-old emigrated from Jordan a few years ago and has been working at Astor Place for six months now.   
Sam says that his search for a “better life” has already been fulfilled at the barber’s chair.

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