The Safe Space Salon

By Chelsea Dickens  April 18th, 2019

BOSTON—When he was 14, Sly Oliver Dunbar began cutting hair for neighborhood kids in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He was a kid with a dream – and had the instinct to stay off the violent, gangland streets. Cutting hair in his mother Merle Maxwell’s backyard, achieved both.

In 2019, at 40, he’s still cutting hair for neighborhood kids, now in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Everyone is family in Sly’s Barbershop at 321 Western Ave. His shop is a “third place,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. This is a place where like-minded and similar people can gather away from work and home to laugh, talk and relax. A few identifiable salons in Boston fit this description.

Bureau of Labor Statistics says as of 2018 roughly 9,220 beauticians were employed through a business in the Boston, Cambridge and Nashua region- not including self-employed. An additional 410 people are employed barbers. Data USA states that in 2017, 3,003 people in Boston were employed in Personal Appearance Work. Many customers believe in loyalty and will only choose one.

“Sista,” Sly exclaims. He moves in for a hug with client Nathalie, who hustles into the shop with her 7-year-old and 9-year-old sons, and elderly mother.

She’s no sister though. She moved to Boston four months ago, but through a mutual friend went to Sly’s for a haircut and now won’t go anywhere else for her hair needs.

Her son, John, 7, is due for a haircut and is autistic. The chair is daunting and he flinches and squirms in the black, disheveled barber chair as Sly moves in with the razor blade for a “bald fade” a buzz cut with a bit more hair left on the top of the head.

“I’m trying to set a good example for them,” Sly says as he consoles John. “I try to be real with kids in here, speak the truth to them.”

Sly shaves client’s head.

 

Other neighborhood regulars will walk into the shop. Two young men, Rinaldo and Franciso, have been seeing Sly for haircuts or just to sit and talk since they were boys.

Rinaldo walks in to get a shave to the sides of his head, and trim to his top. He first saw Sly when the barbershop was located on Cambridge Street. That was 11 years ago. Franciso has the same story, but he’s not in for a haircut this day. He wants to sit with his friend Rinaldo and talk with Sly just to pass the time.

Sly sees so many clients – and many of them see him – through years and years in the chair.

Ron is from Brookline, Massachusetts and moved from Israel five years ago for work. He, too, wanted the ‘American Dream,’ he says, just like Sly did. Once he found Sly’s shop he didn’t need to go anywhere else, and didn’t want to.

“Nice and clean. That’s what he does.” Ron says with an American flag chair apron draped over him.

The clipper blade hums as Sly nods and focuses on finishing Ron’s high and tight.

Sly knows what he wants every time he comes in.

“Yeah for sure you know,” Ron laughs.

“It’s a relationship between a barber and a client,” Sly says.

“I come here every two or three weeks. All the time. We adjust from time to time and make expectations, but all the time he knows. He never forgets.”

Noah Goodman, a biotech salesman in Cambridge, lives just a block away from the shop. He comes in once a month for a haircut and has been doing so for the last two or three years. He sits in the barber chair of Sly’s brother, C.J. Anderson, Sly’s partner for the last nine years, also his apprentice. C.J. sets to work, asking Noah how he’s been and what he’s been doing.

“Got chores to do, get my haircut,” Noah says. “I live around here now, just up the hill. I’m right by Ball Square and Marine Square.”

“Yeah?” C.J. says. “There’s a good breakfast place over there.”

“Yeah, yeah Soundbites. It’s really good. It’s a good spot, good neighborhood spot.”

“On Broadway and Somerville?”

“Yeah, right there on Broadway.”

“Ever been to the neighborhood restaurant?” Sly chimes in.

“No, which one is that,” Noah asks.

“Right on Ball Street,” says C.J.

“Oh, the one like the Brazilian breakfast spot? I tried going there, but it was a big wait.”

The haircut is finished 10 minutes later.

“Thanks C. J.” Noah says as they shake hands and then come in for a side hug.

Noah hands C.J.  $13 — a cheap haircut.

“Yeah man, take it easy.”

Noah goes up to Sly.

“Yeah, what’s up man. Good seeing you.”

Noah puts on his coat and leaves, the door and its bell sound off behind him.

C.J. adds finished touch to client’s fade.

 

Peter arrives for a cut. He’s a clinical psychology student and a former tutor of C.J.’s so he’s very familiar with everyone in the shop. He’s been coming to Sly’s for a year.

“Hey man, how you doin’? How are you?” Says C.J. as Peter approaches him after taking off his jacket and setting it down on a bench next to the entrance of the salon.

“I’m fine, how are you?”

“I’m good man.”

“I’m doing my hair a bit short, and tossing a bit to the side,” Peter says as he sits in the chair and grabs a fistful of his straight, blond hair and moves it over to the left side of his mostly shaved head.

“So what you been doin’” C.J. asks.

“Goin’ to the gym mostly. I go to Atlantis, it’s like in Hyatt and then I do Jiu Jitsu.”

“Now that’s a good workout.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty serious. I’ve been taking beginner classes but the advanced ones, oof, I got my ass kicked. In this one I got choked out. I gotta’ level up, but mark my words, revenge is coming.”

Both men laugh.

“I should be into modeling,” Peter says. “My high school girlfriend certainly thought so, but that dream died along with that relationship.”

The room erupts into laughter.

Peter asks, “Everyone’s had a relationship like that, right?”

“Hell yeah,” C.J. says.

“Everyone knows each other. It’s a good environment,” Peter says as he gets up from the chair after his cut. He too comes in for a side hug and handshake from C.J. and pays $13 for the haircut. Of course, the tip amount is never discussed. C.J. and Sly both know how much the haircut is worth, but also know the importance of keeping a friendship and the trust between the clients.

“Yes, it takes a year, maybe,” Sly says about building that relationship.

“Every so often they invite you to a party or something. After three of five years, they can ask anything. You get to learn about people and different places.”

The sociologist Oldenburg, author of “The Great Good Place,” said, “‘third places’ are dominated by their regulars but not necessarily in a numerical sense…it is the regulars whose mood and manner provide the infectious and contagious style of interaction and whose acceptance of new faces is crucial.”

Ricky trims Michael’s forehead hairs.

 

Ricardo’s Infinity Hair Salon is located in Allston, owned by Ricardo “Ricky” Fernandez. He welcomes every one of his customers with a hug. A fan always runs at the entrance of the salon, waving the mini Cuban and American flags that are perched in the top right corner of Ricky’s station mirror.

Pictures of clients, family and certifications adorn the mirror. His client at 5 p.m. is Michael Hobin, a freelance journalist. Hobin’s middle-parted hair is getting a trim before being greased back slightly to create a spiky, super-gelled look.

Mike has been seeing Ricky for about 18 years. The two met through a mutual friend; once in the chair Mike never went anywhere else for a cut.

“He is a great guy…I feel good coming in here,” Mike says.

“Everyone here is my friend,” Ricky says.

Mike is not his oldest client. Ricky has clients who have been coming to him since he first opened the shop in the 1970s, he says. As if cued, his oldest client walks through the door.

He, too, is an immigrant –from Iran. He worries about offering his name or too much of his story, always fearing the Iranian government will find him and his family. He owns a car dealership now, but at one time he was a professor at several universities in North America and his home in Tehran.

“I [had] three children, good home, very wealthy, but I want a better life for them so we come to the U.S.,” the man, 78, says.

This short, bald man does not appear to need a haircut. His hair is limited to the sides of his cranium just above the ears. Still, he comes to Ricky regularly for a trim of the small hairs that crop up on the tip of his head.

He is a regular and will come in for a trim every two or three weeks, and has been doing so for 40 years. Clients that receive a great experience or have their needs met will remain loyal, no matter what.

Over in Dorchester neighborhood, Annetta Dingle-Smith arrives to work about two hours late. Two clients were waiting at the gated entrance of the small Dorchester hair salon, Girlfriend Hooked Me Up. Sara, a para-legal from Fenway, was waiting in the cold wind for two hours for her 10 a.m. appointment, but hesitated to leave knowing she needed her foundation braids done. It is the only place she goes that can do her braids.

Annetta stands by her station after a long day at work.

 

“In Northeastern for law school, all my friends went to Nana’s [in Maverick] and it gets mixed reviews,” she said.  “All of the salons near me do ‘white girl hair.’”

The shop, smelling of cocoa butter and a touch of sulfur, is decorated in a teal blue wall paint and a dingy white wall. Scattered among the ledges, tables and styling chairs were ornate elephants of all colors, shapes, sizes and mediums. The owner of the building, not Annetta, loved elephants and believed in their powers of wisdom and guidance.

Annetta sat down to her large Mac computer in the small entryway to start playing her gospel music. It was Sunday afternoon.

“I play this type of music to help people,” Annetta said. “You don’t know what people got going on when they come in here.”

Sarah sits and waits along the back wall while another client, a young boy starting with twist dreds, goes before her. His appointment was first.

Annetta has been a stylist for 25 years. She has moved three times, to different salon locations, in the last decade.

She originally is from Hempstead, New York, where her family is from. That’s where she learned to do hair for her four younger sisters.

“I got better than my mama so she made me do my sisters’ hair and she did mine,” Annetta confided.

“I have all kinds of people coming in, blacks, whites, Asians…one Asian guy come in here and he wants braids and I don’t think too much about it.”

In the quiet beach shoreline of Marblehead, Jason Ring has been a hair stylist since 1991. The shop Ring works at five days of the week, with close friend and owner of Fagone and Company Hair Salon, Richie Fagone, is located here. Mondays and Saturdays, Jason is a stylist at Acote Salon in Boston.

The Marblehead salon is spacious with cream colored walls, luxe leather chairs lining the circumference of the salon and only two stations occupied, with eight others completely bare and polished clean. Magazines are neatly displayed around a tall black reception desk where a video of exotic beaches plays on a loop on the flat screen. Adjacent to both the reception and the salon stations is a black Keurig brewing a black cup of Peet’s coffee.

A large range of clients sees them.

As Jason says, “every community is different. People are complex.”

Friday, April 5, Pamela Giblin, 75, arrives at the salon at 9 a.m. for her hair appointment, trim and color. She and her husband had arrived in Marblehead, the day before, after wintering in the south. She’s been a client of Jason’s since September of 2018.

Pamela receives a blowout from Jason to finish her new look.

 

“I actually feel that Richie and Jason have become my friends,” Pamela says.

Pamela shares a great deal with Richie.

“I worked for Colombia University Hospital in New York City,” she said. “I was responsible for public relations, marketing and fundraising. You know, I loved the hospital job. I was then the director of alumni, when I left, but I left because I had Diana [Princess of Wales] come in as a guest in the hospital, I got fired.”

“Oh, really? Why’s that?” Jason asked.

“Rudy Giuliani was the mayor at the time and I didn’t invite him.”

“Oh…” replies Jason.

Pamela recounts the day Princess Diana came to visit the hospital and became stuck in an elevator with just Pam and Liz Tebbets, fellow employee.

“[We] got into an elevator going up to the eighteenth floor of the hospital to visit the pediatric AIDS ward, of which she obviously had an interest in,” says Pamela. “So, we’re going up and all of a sudden our elevator gets stuck. At that time, she wasn’t divorced yet. She still had that sapphire ring on.

“I said to her, ‘you know, Diana, last night the public had the choice of watching the Super Bowl or your biography by Diana Orton. She says, ‘Oh, Pamela, I do hope you watched the Super Bowl.’ I laughed and I said, ‘No, I watched your biography by Diana Orton. It gave me such a perspective and you are clearly the winner with this fiasco with Charles.’

“She started to cry. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Thank you, I really needed to hear that.’”

Jason looked at Pamela, putting the finishing touches on her haircut. Through the mirror reflection Jason smiled slightly at her. He blow-dried her hair to add some curl and by 12:15 p.m. Pamela left. With a smile on her face.