The Brooklyn Barbershop That Survived Three Pandemic Events
Illustration: Kingsley Nebechi

The Brooklyn Barbershop That Survived Three Pandemic Events

Crown Heights’ X-Clusive made it through…

Gerard Louisias Jr. was tired of waiting in long lines for a haircut due to the lack of barbershops in the area and was sure there were enough Black men who felt the same to start his own barbershop. It was December 1992, and he had never cut a single follicle of hair off someone’s head. X-Clusive Barbershop was born out of a desire of giving a community what it needed and deserved.

Every barbershop shares its DNA with its owner, and for X-Clusive, that’s Haitian-born Louisias. Referred to around Brooklyn as “Dee,” he embodies the staunch autonomy of a self-made man. He speaks with a gruff warmth and an arm wrapped around your shoulder, inching you closer to the wisdom being spoken.

“I treat every customer like a good friend,” he says. “I treat people with respect and always show concern about how their family is doing, how they’re doing. When you connect with people like that, you’ll always have a customer base.”

Inside X-Clusive, three leather barber chairs are positioned in a semicircle in front of two leather couches. The walls are tattooed with the New York Knicks logo, there are celebrity photos and barber stations with clippers, and extension cords and miscellaneous materials are strewn about. The inside is what makes X-Clusive special, but it’s not because of the decor.

This isn’t the story of a cool new barbershop with popularity buoyed by novelty. This isn’t even a story about a legacy barbershop shutting down because society moved too fast for it to adapt. This is the story of how a community built a barbershop to withstand anything life hands it — including a pandemic-prompted shutdown — told by the man who raised it from an idea to a sanctuary.

If you were in Crown Heights in early 1993, long before the Starbucks landed around the corner, you’d see flyers for X-Clusive, printed by its tireless owner, hugging light poles and plastered on longstanding murals as if they’d always been in the neighborhood’s life. On the right day and at the right building, you might’ve even seen Dee going door-to-door spreading the good word about a new shop opening with haircuts that were 30% cheaper, 100% better, and a whole lot closer than the competition. He hired good barbers, and before long, the clippers were buzzing at 1030 Union St.

By mid-1993, though, life had chipped away at the shop’s foundation. One by one, barbers began quitting for personal reasons until only one barber was by Dee’s side fighting the tide of bills and customers. The shop wouldn’t be here right now, in fact, if Dee didn’t have an epiphany: The community made the shop, so it’s the community he had to go to in order to save the shop. Within a couple of years, he had restocked the shop with homegrown talent. “The key to it is finding barbers that grew up in the area,” he says. “People are more likely to come to them because they already know the barber.”

The community had granted X-Clusive a second life with both loyalty and personnel, and the shop repaid the community in more than dark caesars and fades. X-Clusive started to open earlier, to be there seven days a week instead of five. Soon, 20 haircuts a day became 30, which just as quickly became 40 haircuts a day. Some nights, the clippers buzzing and conversations flowing would fill the room until well past midnight — long after most barbershops would’ve shut their doors.

Not everyone came to the shop for the same cut, but it always felt as if they all came for the same reason. X-Clusive became a safe haven for anyone who wanted to sip their beer in peace or make a few extra bucks by selling bootlegged movies — as long as they abided by the unspoken yet unmistakable rule: Never disturb the haircutting. “You need people to come so they can have some outlet to express themself,” Louisias says. “To share news or something else.”

The same man who sends you out in the world looking brand new will stand in the face of the law to make sure the integrity that comes with that cut is respected. Nothing can stop a man with a community behind him.

Here, Black men are allowed to be as free as the next thought they have, to speak on the world around them as if they are the molders of it instead of, oftentimes, the ones being crushed by it. Everyone felt safe, so everyone came.

But here’s the catch-22 of a Black barbershop: The same environment that makes Black men feel safe congregating is, by virtue of merely existing, the same environment that will lead police to suspect illegal activity. X-Clusive hasn’t been immune to this disease. If the police think they see someone drinking a beer, they’ll jump out of their car to give them a ticket or just walk into the shop and ask people for their ID. “It’s straight harassment,” Louisias says. “Back in the 2000s, police were just looking for people to give tickets to.”

But Dee kept the people in his shop safe. The same man who kept your hairline intact is also the man holding a free Labor Day cookout for the community. The same man giving a young boy his first haircut is also mediating confrontations between the youth, helping them learn nonviolent ways to settle disputes. The same man who sends you out in the world looking brand new will stand in the face of the law to make sure the integrity that comes with that cut is respected. Nothing can stop a man with a community behind him.

In the summer of 1999, New Yorkers were dying from the West Nile virus; that didn’t stop people from coming in to get their hair cut. A decade later, New Yorkers were dying from the swine flu; that didn’t stop people from coming to get their hair cut. If the New York City blackout of 2003 didn’t literally take the power out of the barbers’ hands, X-Clusive doubtless would have been the only light shining bright in that chaotic time.

But, the coronavirus is different; it’s an existential threat to X-Clusive. At first, the community responded to the coronavirus with their presence. In the shop, the virus was laughingly dismissed as too far away to affect Brooklyn; these were men not willfully underrating its severity but men whose laughter was a way to gain control in a world that often strips it from them.

Slowly, but surely, the world began snatching that control from the community. People started staying home to protect themselves. No one was going to the club and needed to complete the outfit with a cut. Schools were closed, and no one needed a fresh cut to impress their crush. Forty cuts a day quickly became 20 cuts, and 20 dwindled to it being 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon with Dee having to cut only one man’s hair that day.

“It’s been slow all week,” Louisias tells me the day before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all barbershops and beauty salons to cease operations. “A customer called me yesterday, and I was already gone. I definitely close earlier. Ninety percent of the day is very slow.”

The shop may have underestimated the virus, but it never undervalued its family’s safety. Clippers are always cleaned; customers are checked for sores; each seat is sprayed with disinfectant; some barbers don surgical gloves.

Yet, over the last few days before X-Clusive shut its doors, customer calls still poured in. Some called to make their regularly scheduled appointment and maintain a semblance of normalcy in their everyday life. Other voices on the other end of the phone were drowning in worry, calling just to make a connection with a member of their family to ensure they’re still alive and in business. One customer stopped in just to sit down for a few minutes, ask how the barbers were doing, and leave.

“We’ve been here for 27 years, and everybody knows us,” Louisias says. “They’re worried about us losing business and if we’re still gonna be here to give haircuts. Everybody’s concerned. There’s always a bigger picture than what’s going on.”

Barbershops were ordered to close at 8 p.m. on March 20. The last head at X-Clusive wasn’t done being cut until well after 9 p.m. The love is forever.