A witty guy in a baseball cap holds multiple conversations while trimming patrons at an east side barbershop.
“How you barely got a beard and still got gray in it?” he asks one man.
Minutes later, as the subject changes, so does the barber’s age – he’s just told a visitor he’s 42, but decides he’s a bit jealous when a fellow stylist mentions being younger.
“I’m 40,” jokes David Hardin. “I age in increments of five.”
Playful banter is just one of many services offered at HeavyWeightCuts, an older storefront at 8008 Kercheval Ave. Along with styling, shaving and shape-ups, there are other urban barbershop standards like informal counseling, retail shopping, and even local history lessons. In a community drawing lots of recent attention for its changes, the staff and clientele at HeavyWeightCuts are proud to say things there remain the same.
“The atmosphere is cool in here. It’s calm, collected,” says Hardin, sizing up the man in his chair, Kayeen Ellis-Kemp.
A first-time shop owner, Hardin opened HeavyWeightCuts in 2001 after working at a series of locations in nearby East Jefferson Avenue neighborhoods.
Gifted at sketching as a child, Hardin says he received his first pair of clippers at 12. What might be best described as grooming malfunctions led him to test his artistic talent.
“I got tired of my momma messing up my hair,” says Hardin. “I had nice, curly hair. I said, ‘If I’m going to walk around with a bold (bad) cut, I might as well do it myself.’”
After graduating from Finney High School and serving two years in the Navy, Hardin’s career path became apparent. At a barber college he formalized his training and began building a customer base, alongside relatives who shared his love of the craft. When a price opportunity knocked Hardin bought the space on Kercheval, also previously a barber shop, on the edge of West Village.
At the time, the tightly knit businesses nearby included a record store and sports jersey retailer, but break-ins burdened the sportswear shop, while the record business couldn’t compete with the fast-growing popularity of internet music downloads.
Hardin didn’t worry about his store’s fate, he says, even when business was slow. Years later, the restaurants and food shops that have sprouted in West Village have benefited from population influx and media attention HeavyWeightCuts seldom receives, but none can say they’ve sustained themselves and served the community for 15 years. In fact, Hardin cites a loyal customer base as the reason he hasn’t raised prices since the day he opened.
“We have the younger guys who come in and they talk and listen to their music, we have the older guys who talk about what the city used to be like. ‘This used to be over here, that used to be over there,’” says Hardin. “We have women who come in with their sons, and sometimes they leave them to wait on a free chair. They know they’re in good hands because Uncle Barber Dave is gonna take care of them.”
The mix of customers includes black and white, mechanics, doctors, and lawyers, adds Hardin. In the long tradition of urban barbershops, HeavyWeightCuts also welcomes occasional clothing vendors and other freelance types.
A “family atmosphere,” created in part by two fellow stylists including Hardin’s cousin Zac Hall, encourages young men to confide about personal issues, Hardin says.
“They’re comfortable here and they don’t have to feel like they’re a punk if they share what’s on their minds, because we’re so open,” Hardin adds. “There’s a lot of stuff we do here, and we don’t know the influence we have on people.”
Regular patron Kayeen Ellis-Kemp, 23, says he’s a product of HeavyWeightCuts’ positive influence. Once, while working for a chess company, he says every barber bought chess boards from him. The shop has become a good spot to find an occasional face-off.
“They respect people’s hustle,” Ellis-Kemp says. “If a kid comes in and needs to sell candy, they’re good about supporting them. The customers are good people, too, because they’ll help out.”
While there’s a “no profanity” sign on the wall, the staff admits occasional slip-ups, depending on who’s there at the time. Customers say they typically receive fast service and leave, feeling appreciated, not offended.
Hall, who helps Hardin serve HeavyWeightCuts customers seven days a week, says he’s proud of the business they’ve built.
“It’s been cool, seeing it evolve from the early 2000s until right now,” says Hall.
For shop regular Dejuan Duncan, 30, the shop is also a “sanctuary.”
“We have good conversations, good, grown-man conversations,” he says. “Women probably think we just talk about the ladies we’re with, but it’s way more than that.”
“You feel nothing but love from the time you walk in to the time you walk out, and you want to pay it forward,” adds Duncan. “So when you run into somebody on the street you can talk to them and put them in a better mood, all because of the good feeling you got at the barbershop.”