Each year, Village Preservation honors the invaluable people, businesses, and organizations that make a special contribution to our neighborhoods at our Annual Meeting and Village Awards. This year, on June 14th, 2022 at 6 PM we will be celebrating seven outstanding awardees — RSVP HERE to attend in person and HERE to participate virtually via livestream.
Astor Place Hairstylists has been a neighborhood institution for decades. It was founded in 1947 by Enrico Vezzo Sr. who came here in 1921 from Castelforte, Italy, stowed away in a ship. Prior to COVID, the shop employed over 50 active barbers and had a long list of celebrity clientele. Owner John and Paul Vezza, grandchildren of the original owner, were involved in their business but were ready to retire. Their kids were not interested in taking over.
When COVID hit the business hard, Astor Place Hairstylists publicly announced their imminent closure in late 2020. Thankfully, a group of investors stepped in to save the business, including longtime customer Jonathan Trichter, landlord Jeff Gural, Global Strategy Group president Jefrey Pollock, former Hillary Clinton aide Howard Wolfson, and popular manager “Big Mike” Saviello.
Astor Place Hairstylists was founded as a small Italian barbershop. The early years were successful, but by the 1960s, as hippies and long, uncut hair became more and more common (especially in the local neighborhood), business declined. The store almost closed, but was saved by punk rock. Kids would come over from CBGBs and ask for shaves, mohawks, colors, and spikes. The shop was known to have a significant gay and lesbian clientele, including women (gay and straight) who would come to get their heads shaved — a service not commonly offered to women at most barbershops. Though the business was not officially “unisex” until the 1980s, and many of the barbers were older men from traditional backgrounds, they valued making their customers comfortable.
Andy Warhol and his group would come by and he helped publicize the shop. Astor became a place to hang out. Keith Haring even gave barber Koko one of his paintings which, sadly, he sold for just $4,000 at the time.
With the rise of hip hop, Astor’s barbers began to cut more flattops and shave more designs into heads. Some of the barbers were highly skilled and made a name for themselves. Benny shaved a Batman logo when the first movie came out which led to publicity. Word got around and celebrities such as Spike Lee and Sinbad would come in. Some of the most popular barbers left to start their own shops.
We asked how barbers are selected. Jonathan said that they all work for Astor – the shop doesn’t rent chairs. Before starting, they show a portfolio. If it’s good, they get a tryout and service walk-ins. New ownership has been investing in the store, putting in new flooring and lights, and redoing the chairs. They are trying to engage with younger kids and thinking about how to get people to engage with the brand. Right now there are around 30 barbers and hairstylists – down 40% from the pre-pandemic peak.
And of course manager (now part owner) “Big Mike” has presided over this legendary barbershop that he calls “The United Nations of Haircutters” every day for decades. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in business who can do math in his head quicker than a gameshow contestant. He handles every component of its operations with New York efficiency and is also an artist—specifically, a painter and sculptor. His work has been exhibited in Chelsea galleries and his story as an emerging artist has attracted significant media attention. He has his own website and one of his best customers, @newyorknico, made this viral video of him.
Don’t miss out when “Big Mike” and crew accept their award on June 14th. RSVP HERE to attend in person and HERE to participate virtually via livestream. Find out more about our annual meeting and awards, including past awardees and watching videos of past ceremonies, here.