New York City’s mom-and-pop stores are immortalized into historical institutions through tourism, movies and music. Even so, few businesses can encapsulate the word “iconic” like Astor Place Hairstylists.
The legendary barbershop has been operating for nearly 75 years, serving everyone from punks to rappers to politicians to NYU students. Pictures and paintings of a diverse array of New York icons — from Chris Rock to David Blaine — cover the walls.
The shop is bustling with barbers and customers of all ages. There are over 50 barber chairs laid out across the shop. The large area can be overwhelming for new customers, but longtime clients know which stylist they want and where to go.
Mike Saviello, nicknamed “Big Mike,” is the manager and face of Astor Place. He not only organizes appointments but also keeps customers coming back with his warm personality. I spoke to Mike about Astor Place’s history and current situation.
WSN: What first drew you to Astor Place?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: I lived in Jersey. I just graduated from college. I came home and sat at the table with my father. All of a sudden, my godfather comes over. I knew my godfather was a barber. He says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I just graduated college. I’m gonna look for a job.” He said, “I’m gonna pick you up tomorrow, 6 o’clock. I need help.” I said, “I’m not a barber.” He said, “No, no, no I just need help. You come with me.” So I said, “Oh, I need to go to New York City to look for a job anyway. I might as well get a ride.” The barbershop used to be just upstairs, where a coffee shop is now. Around 30 or 40 people were waiting outside the place. It was wintertime. My uncle told me to stay outside and help organize the line. It was crazy, like mass confusion. So I did that for a couple of days before I told him, “Alright, I’ll go look for a job now.” My uncle said, “No, you go look for a job later.” It’s almost 38 years later, and I’m still here.
WSN: There are so many great barbershops in this neighborhood alone. Yet, Astor Place has been a mainstay for nearly 75 years. What gives Astor Place its competitive advantage?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: It just became an iconic place to come. The price, at the time, was much cheaper than everyone else. Around the 80s, Andy Warhol started coming in so we also got a bit of buzz. At the time, everyone had long hair, but then the short hair started trending. A lot of barbers didn’t know how to cut long hair except for the old guys, which we had a lot of. Astor Place became the trendy place to come.
WSN: I see pictures of celebrities all over the shop. What were your favorite celebrity experiences?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: I think they’re all pretty cool. When I first started working here, Run DMC, Method Man, Q-Tip and all those rappers came in. Adam Sandler and Chris Rock came when they were just teenagers. It was crazy; everybody came here. My funny story is about Childish Gambino, whose real name is Donald Glover. He used to go to NYU, so he came here all the time. He’d just started a new TV show so we put his picture up. All of the sudden, a kid comes here raving about someone called Childish Gambino. I didn’t know who the hell Childish Gambino was. I didn’t realize Donald Glover changed his name. Robert DeNiro also used to come here and bring his little kid, Ralph. Ralph is 40-years-old now and just came in the other day. He brings his kid now. Most of our customers are three or four generations. A lot of people came as kids and now they bring their kids. That’s how long the shop has been here.
WSN: You mentioned the shop used to be in a smaller space upstairs. When was the switch to the basement shop?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: There was a clothing store down here and they left. When I first started in the 80s, they put 20 barbers downstairs because it was so busy upstairs. Eventually, we closed upstairs because it was too expensive to rent. We opened up space in the basement so now we can hold the same amount of people. We lost a lot of people due to COVID. We used to have 60 barbers but now we have 35 or 40.
WSN: How did the barbershop handle the pandemic’s early stages?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: We closed in March and opened again in June. Business was down more than 80%. The old owners closed the shop, but luckily, we were bought by new owners. We started with the new owners the day after Thanksgiving. The switch was seamless. We kept the same name, the same people, everything. The only thing that’s changed is that there are a lot fewer barbers because of COVID.
WSN: The Instagram influencer New York Nico has been raising awareness for many small businesses in the city. After the old owners closed the shop, Nico launched a campaign that helped garner a lot of attention for Astor Place. How did New York Nico’s social media campaign affect business?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: Nico’s been coming here ever since he was a little kid. It was funny, I remember back then he told me he had an Instagram with about 50k followers. He was getting real big, but he always posted for us because we’re one of his favorite places. When he found out we were closing, he really wanted to help. He started making posts for the shop which helped. There were hundreds and hundreds of comments of people saying how they used to come here. A lot of people started coming back. He raised a lot of awareness. He’s a big influence.
WSN: With vaccinations ramping up, have things improved recently?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: Things have been getting better week by week. I think vaccinations are helping a lot. I’ve seen a lot of customers, who I haven’t seen since COVID started, come back. They feel safe since they got vaccinated. Most of our staff is vaccinated already, except for the young kids. But customers are coming back, little by little. The city’s picking up. Hopefully, NYU should be back at full capacity next semester. It helped that you guys came back a little bit this year since we really rely on NYU. We also have Google, Facebook and Instagram offices around here. That’s around 5,000 employees within blocks of us. I call this the new Silicon Valley, but they’re all still working from home. Hopefully, when they come back by September, they’ll come here. They were a lot of our business. The NYU IT department is in this building as well. There were 400 employees, but they’re all working from home. Hopefully, by the end of May, everybody’s vaccinated and they can start coming over.
WSN: You’ve gained a lot of fame yourself from your art. Your paintings are all over the shop. Can you tell me about your painting career?
Mike ‘Big Mike’ Saviello: I’m going to be 60-years-old in a couple of weeks. All my life, I wanted to paint, but I never went to school for it. When I went to college, I studied business. Almost four years ago, I started painting for myself. I painted my wife. Some guys here at the shop told me to paint Biggie, so I painted Biggie. New York Nico started seeing my paintings. He really liked them so he ended up making a movie about me called Big Mike Takes Lunch. It was his first movie. It’s about 12 minutes long, a legit short film. He put it out on Vimeo on Saturday. By Sunday, it was a staff pick. I’m off Mondays, but they told me to come in on Monday. Channel 4 News, VICE News and NBC all came in to do a story about me and Nico. Next thing you know, I did a show here. 200 people came. The Mayor came. A guy who owned a gallery also came here so then I had shows in Soho and Chelsea.
While Astor Place struggled during the pandemic, they’ve shown their resilience and popularity among New Yorkers. Big Mike and the barbers are hopeful for the months to come. With vaccination rates increasing, Astor Place Hairstylists is excited to see new and returning faces.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Email Sabiq Shahidullah at [email protected]