Vinny’s offers community — and comic relief — in a time when gentrification seems to be wiping out authenticity.
As the wave of hipification continues to crash ever-eastward across L.A., leaving in its wake strewn bottles of wide-release Pinot Noir and pairs of discarded Uggs, independent neighborhood businesses often bail into the deep or get left out at sea.
In Virgil Village, however, peeking out from under the shadow of Los Feliz, local favorite Vinny’s Barber Shop has managed to hang on, even as artisanal marmalade cafes and free-trade drip coffeehouses frequently pop up as apparent harbingers of gentrification.
Proprietor Omar Romero, a San Diego native, opened Vinny’s as the answer to a calling. “The world needs barbers again,” Romero says. He believed that this Latinx enclave where he, his wife and son (the barbershop’s namesake) had relocated, was where it was possible for him to deliver.
Romero has a youthful vigor and is deft at wisecracks with his staff, but his matter-of-fact pragmatism is what undeniably accounts for the shop’s successful beginnings.
“A business plan is easy,” Romero says. “Execution isn’t.”
The shop opened its doors in 2012 when it was becoming trendy for men to start taking better care of the way they looked. And Romero was at the ready with Vinny’s foolproof business model: great service at a fair price, and a rockabilly attitude.
Seven years later, Vinny’s Barber Shop is as much of it’s time as it is ahead of it.
The ten chair operation stretches across two storefronts, both altars to cross-generational Angeleno culture — picture shelves lined with Chicanx knickknacks and Dodger bobbleheads — as well as dignified nods to the eras that helped inspire it.
Porters in smart smocks offer up beer from a vintage Hotpoint icebox. Barbers rock tailored slacks and tatted forearms. House rules hang in a center window: “NO RELIGION, NO POLITICS, NO PHONES DURING SERVICE.” Allow yourself the favor of going under the scissors, and maybe even a hot towel or a shoulder massage, and you’ll be reminded what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a craftsman taking pride in the work.
On any given day, every barber will be busy, while awaiting clients sit patiently on throwback metal chairs, flipping through magazines or sipping Tecate. Barbers you’d have the opportunity to “sit with” are frequently booked days out, and the shop shows no signs of slowing down. By all rights, business is good.
But the neighborhood’s growth is both good and bad, and while new businesses opening and existing ones diversifying help cultivate the area’s eclectic cultural dynamism, it also encourages a subsequent boom in real estate development and an influx of residents of a higher tax bracket. That kind of growth threatens to ruin Virgil Village’s reputation as one of L.A.’s last remaining affordable “pockets.”
Also, as Romero says, the crunch of infinite people and finite space gives him pause. “Where are all the people going to go?” he says. “Where are they going to park?” Even Romero has moved his family out of Virgil Village and up to Pasadena.
My first visit to the shop was several years ago when they were just one storefront and had half as many chairs. When the barber, whose name I sadly don’t remember, finished and spun me around to face the mirror, I was delighted and happily fished out my debit card.
“Oh, we’re cash only, bro,” he said.
“Is there a bank nearby?” I asked.
“You know what, man?” he replied. “Just get us next time.”
In this capitalistic “turn-and-burn” hellscape, that was both a reaffirmation that Vinny’s knows how good a thing it’s got, and a rarified act of goodwill I’d never encountered in a common business transaction. Of course, I hoofed over to a nearby ATM and returned with what I owed and then some. But the gesture has always stayed with me and, honestly, it’s what made me a lifelong customer.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in Romero’s chair. Yes, he still cuts; he’s the first chair on the left side. While he gave his characteristic precise attention to my undercut, beard trim and straight-razor shave, he also quizzed the barbers he was mentoring, thoughtfully answered my stream of questions and engaged in the shop’s signature jest-filled banter.
Looking out on Virgil Village from inside the shop, the top of a new condo was visible above the flat stucco roof of a nearby single-family home. It must be frightening for some long-time residents to think that the neighborhood’s biggest changes are probably just beginning. But to listen to the hum of this shop, of the people that live and work here, when Romero spins me around in the chair to face the mirror it’s comforting to know that some things never change.