Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

A special Villager supplement.

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

At Raul’s Unisex, from left: Cesar Barro, Raul Velez, Jr., Felix Rivera, Raul Velez, Sr., Jesus Figueroa and Edgar Velez.

It’s all in the family at a longtime Loisaida barber

By Sara G. Levin

A chubby 3-year-old squirmed under his yellow smock at Raul’s Unisex barbershop and salon at 11 Avenue B Saturday, one of the neighborhood’s oldest remaining family-owned shops.

“He’s here because his dad has been coming for 30 years,” said Constance Velez, 16, daughter of the shop’s owner, Edgar Velez. As salsa beats emanated from the radio, she nodded at the toddler and her cousin, Raul, Jr., who was cutting his hair.

There’s no way of understanding how this Puerto Rican-originated business has withstood over four decades of neighborhood ebb and flow without getting to know the Velez family. And even if you’re not blood related, if you’ve been going long enough, you’re family.

Turning, Constance Velez continued her tour. “Chuito gave me my first haircut,” she said, smiling at Jesus Figueroa, the stylist who runs the salon in the back, as if a first haircut were its own right of passage. “He also taught me how to dance,” she added.

The shop’s chronology starts with Wilfredo “Willy” Velez opening the business when he came to New York in 1960 from Lares, Puerto Rico. Then, Willy’s brother, Raul Velez, Sr., maintained the shop for some time before handing it over last year to his nephew, Willy’s son Edgar Velez. Edgar, an-ex boxer who has worked at the shop since 1986, now continues to run the place even as gentrification rumbles its way right to the corner. There, in place of the old Gaseteria on Houston Street and Avenue B, lies a new construction site for luxury, million dollar, condominium apartments. And Paco East Houston LLC, developers of the new condo, did not arrive quietly.

Two weeks ago, construction workers working on the neighboring foundation, cracking the facade of the barbershop’s building, forcing everyone, including tenants of overhead apartments, to evacuate. Subsequent cracks in the building related to the construction have caused one upstairs neighbor to leave and slowed business at the barbershop somewhat because people are scared the building might collapse, said Raul Velez, Jr. Department of Buildings spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said that the cracks are being monitored and the building is stable for now.

Even though some customers and employees might be worried, business seemed anything but slow on a recent Saturday. Despite the changes in this once predominantly Hispanic part of town, Raul’s barbershop and salon still draws enough of a crowd to compete. Some loyal customers have to make the trip from Staten Island, Queens or Brooklyn, but they still come — usually around 100 in all on a normal Saturday, according to Edgar. And where there’s a loyal fan base there is money to be made.

“This is the only Hispanic, Boricua barbershop left on the Lower East Side,” Edgar beamed as he trimmed Robert Tavarez’s hair.
Tavarez, who now lives Uptown, has been a customer for “15 to 17 years.”

“Ed’s like a mechanic,” he said. “When you go to a car shop, you have a mechanic who knows exactly what’s wrong with your car. Well, he knows exactly what to do with our hair without even having to ask.”

Raul Velez, Sr., the shop’s previous owner, who travels often between Puerto Rico and New York, sat in front tallying up earnings. (A regular cut for a man is $10 to $15, more for girls depending on what they get.) He is a man of few words in English, but a calming demeanor, sporting a backwards, black beret over long, black, wavy hair, with a large gold chain with a pendant of Jesus’ head hanging down on his chest. Up front the scene is mostly men, relaxing if they aren’t in a barber chair, or playing cards by the counter.

“John Leguizamo used to come here when he was a kid,” said stylist Figueroa, who has been at the salon 20 years. “He was so shy,” Figueroa remembered, as he straightened Nina Concepcion’s hair. The 14-year-old said she’s been a regular customer since she was young because her dad grew up in the neighborhood and still accompanies her here from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Other well-known customers include Johnny Rivera and Christian Castro, actor Luis Guzmán and boxer Nick Acevedo. Edgar Velez still keeps a photo of himself as a boxer in the ring with Acevedo. It is readily apparent how talented Edgar is by observing how many men ask for him. While other barbers might receive 20 or fewer customers on a Saturday, he’ll receive 40.

“Sometimes I get upset because my dad doesn’t have enough time to see me,” said his daughter, Constance. “But I’m proud of him because he does a good job, he’s very dedicated and motivated and a lot of people know him.”

Constance has undoubtedly inherited some of the same dedication. While training under the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps, attending high school and beginning to apply to colleges, she also works after school at a veterinary hospital. Though her ex-boyfriend is in the Army and will soon be deployed to Iraq, she is unsure whether or not to go into the Navy after graduation. Her teacher at the training center warned her about the situation overseas right now, and advised it might be better for her to take another path, she said.

Perhaps as her first job she will help her father continue the tradition, she said, though she plans to study for another type of career.

But Edgar Velez insists he will continue to offer haircuts to loyal customers even if they don’t have enough money to pay, and to celebrate Christmas with champagne, cañita rum and plantains for customers. Edgar said the name will remain Raul, for now — adding he was only given the reins last year.

“Raul did receive offers. We had one customer who offered to buy the place for $100,000, but we wouldn’t,” Edgar said. “It’s tradition.” Considering the neighboring development, further offers are likely to be higher, but Edgar insists the shop will stay. “We offer good quality,” he said reaching for his scissors.

Then scissor dealers Glenn Borenstein and Alfonso Beltranme entered to sharpen the shop’s tools. Breaking out a pack of expensive Japanese blades (including one with a swivel/rotating thumb slot), Borenstein nodded at Raul, Sr.

“Raul’s got a pair of $500 scissors and he ruins them!” Borenstein exclaimed. “He uses them like a garden tool because he’s fearless,” he said, adding that even though some of the other places he deals for, like Avon or boutique salons, might use expensive blades they don’t always get the most ware out of them. “When it comes down to it, it’s about the person who’s using them,” he said, “and these guys are good.”

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