On a weekday morning, the Fiumefreddo brothers’ Park Slope Barber shop is quiet and easy. Ella Fitzgerald sings from the speakers, followed by Sarah Vaughan. “Hey,” says the barber, “this one could give Ella a run for her money. Her voice has a lot of, what do you call ‘em? Octabels. Is that the word?” Octaves, decibels, the word doesn’t matter. What matters is the sound—and the feeling. The place provides a honeyed sense of calm and connectedness, of being rooted through time, past to present.
At this time of day, in high summer, with the door open to Seventh Avenue and a sweet breeze lilting in, the shop is a gentle country of old men. Their silver heads, with fringes of hair, are lovingly palmed and petted by the barber before his scissors start.
“How short do you want it today?”
“Same as always.”
“Sarah Vaughan. What a voice.”
“I remember when she died,” says the customer, holding still.
The walls of the shop are covered with black-and-white posters of mid-century masculinity—John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean. Everything is wood, marble, and chrome. How old is the place? “A hundred years and change,” says the barber. The shop’s awning says it’s been here since 1904. The window disagrees, claiming 1906. But, as the barber once told me, “The guy who did the awning got it wrong” and “The window painter got it wrong, too.” The real start date was 1903.
Here’s the gleaming towel warmer, the antique barber pole, a pair of shoeshine stands. Here are the plastic combs sitting in their glass cylinders of Blue Marvy barbicide. Here’s the perfume of Clubman talc and aftershave, a smell that always brings to mind a line of poetry from Pablo Neruda: “El olor de las peluquerías me hace llorar a gritos.” Translated: “The smell of barbershops makes me sob out loud.”
The city’s old barbers are disappearing. Their shops are vanishing. Nothing is certain in today’s New York but death and rising rents. Further up Seventh Avenue, the departed Mr. Riccardelli’s Clover Barbershop has just been emptied out and readied for its transformation into a wine store. Across the river in SoHo, the unfortunately named yet beloved Hair Box has shuttered. After more than a century of that space hosting one barber or another, it will now serve frozen yogurt. Thankfully, the Fiumefreddos are going strong.
“I’ll never forget you,” the Park Slope barber sings along to the music as he trims another customer. “I’ll never forget you.”
Jeremiah Moss is the award-winning author of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). His writing on the city has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Daily News, and online at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He has been interviewed in major newspapers around the globe.