I have passed by the old York Barber Shop on upper Lexington for years now, but never stopped in, because, well, one just doesn't walk into a barber shop to look around unless you plan to get a haircut. And I never wanted a haircut because I've been faithful to the same haircutter for 13 years now. (The relationship between a New Yorker and the individual who cuts their hair can be a very personal thing, and one doesn't like to "cheat," as it were.)
But the other night I was feeling a bit down and the narrow window of the York looked so inviting with its barber pole, gilt lettering and antique tonsorial bric-a-brac, that I walked right in and sat in one of the barber chairs. Getting my hair cut has always lifted my spirits, and I had a suspicion the York experience would be special. A woman beckoned me in. I thought she was a hostess—old barber shops like York tend to stock male personnel—but she turned out to be a hairdresser. She had a Spanish accent and hailed from Queens and kept up a garrulous line of patter throughout the ensuing 20 minutes.
The York is a fascinating place. The barber chairs are original; one can tell by how worn the metal foot rests are. (They were made by Theo. A. Kochs of Chicago.) There are pictures of famous heads that have been trimmed at York on the wall, as well as an assortment of curios. There is a white-and-black checked floor, and hidden cupboards set into the wall. The combination of many mirrors and many lighting fixtures brighten up the space until it fairly twinkles. The business of barbering has been going on so long that every thing has its place. When my barber took off my eyeglasses, there was a custom compartment near the mirror where they were set to rest while my hair was being cut.
York has had only three owners in its 80 years, the most recent since 1983. Most of the customers are regulars and are from the immediately neighborhood.
I expected a simple, and probably rather pedestrian haircut. I got much more. First of all, my barber did a fine job sculpted my hair, without making a big fuss about it. I marveled at the straight razors on the counter, and she told me she gave many a shave every day. Men were sometimes reticent to have a woman go at their beard with a razor, but she had become adept at the task. To prove it, she shaved the back of my neck with a more delicate touch than I have ever laid to my own skin.
She was not done, either. She laid a hot towel over my face—just like they do in the old movies—and left it there for a minutes. She gave my scalp a short massage. She even trimmed my eyebrows. By the time I was done, I felt thoroughly refreshed and in a much better mood. All this for $22—not the cheapest cut in town, but much less than my usual guy.