• The entrance to Astor Place Hairstylist
  • the front desk
  • Helping a client show his Yankees pride
  • Autographed pictures line the walls
  • A fashion show at Astor Place Hairstylist
  • Astor's Big Mike and Miguel Lora did hair designs in the window at the Major League Baseball Fan Cave
Dec 29, 2011

Manhattan Mainstay

With clients ranging from A-list actors to NYU freshmen, Astor Place Hairstylist has been a New York City institution since the 1940s.

Rare is the Saturday that it’s easy to get a seat at Astor Place Hairstylist, but a surprise weekend snowstorm has rendered the space relatively quiet. Girls would rather not waste a blowout on such a wet day, parents would be hard-pressed to bundle up the brood and leave the house, and no one feels like slip-sliding on the slush-coated sidewalks of Manhattan’s East Village.

That’s good news for the customers who did brave the elements. “We have lines almost every day,” says John Vezza, who co-owns the 64-year-old shop with his brother Paul and father Enrico. “But rain kills us.” As such, a mom and son descend into the basement shop and land an appointment immediately; a few haircutters sit idle, waiting for clients; and Vezza lingers at the front of the shop.

The salon opened in this same building as a 900-square-foot, six-chair barbershop in 1947, but the crowds started lining up in the ‘70s and ’80s, when the salon introduced unisex stylists and made a name for itself as a go-to spot for the era’s punk-rock ‘dos: Mohawks, wacky dye jobs, etchings, etc.

As word of mouth grew, celebrities like Bruce Willis (still a regular), Robert DeNiro and JFK. Jr. made appearances at the shop, which led to media coverage in People, on MTV, and in German, Japanese and Italian newspapers. At its absolute heyday in the ‘90s, 116 haircutters occupied the basement and upper-level shop, while a tuxedo-clad employee directed the lines of people outside with a bullhorn and a list of names.

Today, the Vezzas have reached a more comfortable balance. The former upper-level shop is now a café, and some 75 haircutters etch, color and shave in the basement. “It got a little out of control when we had more stylists,” Vezza says. “We like to manage what we have.”

Despite the history, the unfamiliar might not understand just why the barbershop maintains such a following. Sure, it has the credentials of many high-end Manhattan salons—some of the world’s best stylists, a client list sparkling with A-listers and owners determined to vet each and every coif administered in the store—yet the aesthetic seems to contradict all this. Simple barber stations and shampoo sinks dot the barebones basement, where décor is more akin to New York’s Katz’s Deli (think newspaper clippings and photos with stars posted on the walls) than a chic salon.

Without question, the rock-bottom prices are instrumental to the salon’s success: Basic haircuts start at $14; a wash, cut, and blow-dry costs just $25; even highlights go for $50. It's no wonder that NYU students, lawyers and celebs alike queue daily for trims and shaves.

Even so, one has to ponder why the Vezza family doesn’t jack up prices a smidge. Doubling the cost of a men’s cut would inch it just $7 more than at a Manhattan Supercuts ($21), and celebrity endorsements lend the barebones basement a cache it might otherwise lack.

On top of that, the Vezza family maintains a remarkable level of quality control. Vezza, his brother or his father work at the salon every day of the week; new haircutters have a trial period to prove themselves and earn a chair; and the owners watch every head of hair that leaves 2 Astor Place.

Surely, that’s worth a little extra coin. “I could raise prices by 30 percent, lose about half our business, and still make the same amount,” Vezza says with a shrug. “But because we started out as a strict barbershop, it’s just not what we’re about.”

One thing a price hike would certainly cut back on is local color. Sure, Olympian (and Celebrity Apprentice contestant) Michael Johnson and Sex and the City star Chris Noth frequent the salon – but so do some more “interesting” characters. Danny Martin, a haircutter from Queens who has worked at Astor on and off for four years, recalls one client who came in for a cut and decided to give herself a bath.

“She seemed out of it,” Martin says. “Not like she was on drugs, but just not all there. She asked me how much a shampoo would cost, and the $2 price tag sent her eyes wide and mind reeling at the expense.”

Martin stepped away from his chair and returned to find the customer standing at the shampoo station, donning nothing but a bra and pants while washing her hair and upper body.

“That’s why I love working here,” Martin says. “It’s all about the people you meet.”

– Molly Fergus
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