A year ago, Brownsville master barber Herman James was embarking on an experiment that would change his life.
Barbershops had been closed since March 20 as the city went into pandemic lockdown, including the one James worked at on Manhattans Upper West Side.
So, in mid-May, the barber decided to head to Central Park, lay out his tools, offer free cuts, and see what might happen.
The people started coming.
“Every single person was extremely grateful at first,” he laughed.
“All the barbershops were closed in March, I didn’t start until May, and the barbershops still didn’t open until two months later, so I was the only game in town. If you wanted a haircut you had to come to me.”
James’ set-up is under a pergola near Central Park’s Strawberry Fields. Over the past year he says he’s done about 20-25 cuts per day. The cuts are free, but donations are accepted, and James says people give what they can.
The Brownsville native lights up talking about how he’s made people look better, and feel better. Ask him about the people who have stuck with him during a year of cutting hair in the park during the pandemic, he’ll tell you there’s too many to name.
But it’s the situations where he’s been able to give someone a boost that he’s most proud of. He speaks of one client who hadn’t had a cut in three months and had a head full of curly, course hair and a huge beard.
“I shaved it completely off and cut his hair and he loved his haircut. When he went home to show his family, when he walked through the door it took them a while to recognise who he was.”
Another client he gave a cut before a job interview, and he says the man got the role. “I’m helping them in the areas of their confidence, and their mental state,” he said.
James says one of the biggest changes to his life since moving his operation to Central Park has been in his schedule. Where once he used to work 12 hour days, six days per week, now he comes out to Central Park from 9am to sundown.
“I take the 3 train from Brownsville on the red line to 72nd, it’s a straight shot.”
Working outside has its limitations, but it comes with its benefits. James doesn’t work in the rain and he doesn’t work below 45 degrees. But he loves working amid the natural beauty of Central Park, including recently delighting in watching a tiny brown bird collecting cut hair for its nest.
“I have no motivations or plans to go back to a barbershop,” he said.
“Once you experience cutting hair in Central Park, the last last thing you wanna do is go back to a shop. From the nature, to the people, to the atmosphere. “
Plus, James has his own brand now, HAIRitage. Since starting his experiment in the park, he’s garnered global media attention. The self-described “reserved” master barber even had to start an Instagram account to keep up with the attention.
Even though James offers his cuts on a donation basis, he said he makes a decent living from the work.
“Especially when you live within your means and practice money management,” he said. “I have no overheads and I do pretty good work, so people appreciate that, and they normally give what they would give at a barber shop.”
He said people also appreciate the fact they can create their own price, another difference from the barbershop model.
Right now, James says he is leaning into his entrepreneurial spirit, and has a self-improvement book six-years in the making about to come out on Apple iBooks called The Nine Principles of Triumph.
As well as having no plans to go back to the barbershop, James has no plans to leave Brownsville, the neighborhood where he was born and where he stays, by choice.
“Brownsville has created paradox for me, because it’s a low income area and was always a prime example of what not to do.
“But it’s kept me at a point where I never got comfortable, and it’s helped me with my drive and motivation to do better.”
To get a cut with James, either visit schedulicity.com and search Central Park Barber, or just walk up to his spot under the pergola just north of Strawberry Fields 9:00am to sundown Tuesday through Sunday.
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