The four-block stretch of Eglinton West between Marlee and Dufferin boasts no fewer than 18 barbershops—but the men who travel from all corners of the city to frequent them come for more than just a haircut.
Along the four-block stretch of Eglinton West from Marlee Avenue to Dufferin Street, there are no fewer than 18 different storefronts where barbers serve the public. That’s roughly one barbershop for every 50 metres.
Here in Toronto’s Little Jamaica, the barbershops are the social and cultural hub for men of all ages. It’s where people from different walks of life come together, socialize with friends old and new, and discuss what’s happening—be it around the world or just down the block.
“The barbershop is where you get the daily news, find out the hot topic,” says the owner of Pure-Vibes Barber Shop, who prefers to be known simply as Martin “Pure-Vibes.”
Martin has cut hair since his early teens in his native Jamaica, followed by several years in Brooklyn. Eventually, he landed in Toronto, worked in some of the other shops on Eglinton West and eventually opened his own place in 2009.
“The barber’s original role is to listen, [act as] a psychologist… People come in and get that mind medicine,” says Martin.
“The cuts will always look good, but most people won’t look this good,” says the man whose hair Martin is trimming, laughing a little as he indicates his own low fade from under his smock.
Pure-Vibes’ customer is a casual but well-dressed young man named Ronnie (he declined to give his last name) who has been venturing across town from Jane and Finch to get his hair cut on Eglinton his whole life.
Some of Ronnie’s friends and family “make that trek” from as far away as Scarborough, he says, “as often as once a week… to keep it nice and neat. You want a good haircut, you come to Eglinton, yessir.”
But the experience is about more than just hair. “Play dominoes, movies playing, it’s a chill spot, it’s good people,” says Ronnie. “You come to get your groom on, but you enjoy the people that you’re with, enjoy the atmosphere, the vibe.”
In an Irish pub, this is called “craic“: good conversation, good company and good times in a relaxed, convivial (and generally predominantly male) atmosphere.
Down the street, in an establishment appropriately named More Than Just a Haircut, several young men lounge on couches, chatting about Tupac, Biggie, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.
Between the two shops, a handful of take-out joints roast jerk chicken in steel drums on the sidewalk, puffing streams of rich, spicy and aromatic smoke into the frigid night air.
“Eglinton gives that convenience,” Martin says. “People get off work late, come by, get some good food, get a hair cut—we’re open late, so you can do that.”
Martin says business has been “nice” lately and that his and other Eglinton barbershops often stay busy until “12, 1, 2 [at night] sometimes, depending on the traffic of the people.”
At 8:30 on a recent Thursday evening, while Pure-Vibes is just picking up, down the street at Wisdom’s Barber Shop & Beauty Salon, owner Jimmy Wisdom (pictured above at right) is taking a break for dinner before seeing to his last couple of heads.
Wisdom, 64, is the neighbourhood’s longest-serving barber. And also probably its best soul singer.
“Originally I came to Canada as an entertainer—barbering was secondary for me,” says Wisdom, who emigrated from Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1968.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Bob & Wisdom, his duo with friend Bob Williams, “earned a minor reputation as Canada’s Sam & Dave,” according to the CBC. In 2006, Seattle record label Light in the Attic released Jamaica to Toronto: 1967-1974. The compilation album documented and brought exposure to the city’s exciting but largely forgotten soul, funk and reggae scene of that era, mostly made up of West Indian immigrants like Wisdom.
Now, when Wisom sings, it’s usually with his family in the Yorkminster Citadel of the Salvation Army Church at Yonge and Highway 401, which he attends regularly.
He has been coaxed out of musical retirement a few times, though, including a Jamaica to Toronto reunion concert with some of the old gang in July 2006, a show that drew over 5,000 fans to the Harbourfront Centre. But family and church are “very important” to Wisdom; his shop shares a wall with the beauty salon run by his wife, Merva. The women’s salons in the neighbourhood are at least as vital a part of the community’s social fabric as the men’s barbershops; if you count the salons and beauty supply stores along with the barbershops, there are more than 40 in this four-block stretch—one every 22 metres. (However, it seems to be more difficult for an outsider—at least a male—to get an insight into the world of the salon.)
Based on several visits, Pure-Vibes’ customers are mostly young men in sweats, while Wisdom’s are middle-aged and older, dressed in suits. The sound system at Pure-Vibes blasts catchy dancehall tunes from Capleton and Garnett Silk, while Wisdom hums along to Christmas carols on the radio during the afternoon, and tunes the TV to Wheel of Fortune at night.
Wisdom also says he strongly discourages any swearing in his shop.
“My success has been with real hair cutting…” He stops and corrects himself: “Real barbering, I should say—’cause real barbering is about more than just cutting hair.”