The Pitt News

Short on the sides, long on top: Barber shops find success in Oakland

Kamaria+Mitchell+braids+Shaiquia+Covington%27s+hair.+Covington%2C+of+McKeesport%2C+Pa.%2C+heard+about+The+Natural+Choice+through+social+media.+Katie+Krater+%7C+Staff+Photographer
Back to Article
Back to Article

Short on the sides, long on top: Barber shops find success in Oakland

Kamaria Mitchell braids Shaiquia Covington's hair. Covington, of McKeesport, Pa., heard about The Natural Choice through social media. Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

Kamaria Mitchell braids Shaiquia Covington's hair. Covington, of McKeesport, Pa., heard about The Natural Choice through social media. Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

Kamaria Mitchell braids Shaiquia Covington's hair. Covington, of McKeesport, Pa., heard about The Natural Choice through social media. Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

Kamaria Mitchell braids Shaiquia Covington's hair. Covington, of McKeesport, Pa., heard about The Natural Choice through social media. Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

By Kevin Lynch / Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






A black and white photograph of Craig Street in the early 1900s hangs on the wall near the entrance of Oliverio Hair, Nails and Waxing — a reminder of the maze of cable cars and brick-paved streets that used to be East Oakland.

Craig Street, just a minute’s walk from the Pitt’s campus, is now decorated with book stores, restaurants and culture shops. But during Pittsburgh’s industrial heyday in the early 20th Century, the street sported only some small, rent-controlled apartments, a general store and cable cars running up to Fifth Avenue and down to Forbes.

“Many businesses have come and gone, even since I’ve been here,” said Ron Oliverio, co-owner of Oliverio, who has done business for 26 years on the corner of Henry and South Craig Streets.

As relics of Pittsburgh’s past have disappeared, Oliverio represents one certainty — the presence of Oakland’s local barbershops and hair salons.

The good old days are nowadays for local hair shops. Having moved well beyond the wild and untamed hairstyles of the late 1960s, the hair industry has picked up where it left off in the earlier half of the 20th century, with students and young professionals flocking to get clean cuts from professional stylists with whom the clients can share a rapport.

Local hairstylists offer nostalgia for when the shops were an enclave for social and political commentary, a space where you could maintain your looks and keep up with the times. Whether customers are inspired by this cultural yearning, want to look their best for Instagram or, as Oliverio suggests, are simply inspired by “Mad Men,” the business of hair is big around Oakland, and he’s happy about it.

“I like what I do,” Oliverio said, “When I come in on Monday, I never wish I wasn’t here, and when I leave on Saturday, I never feel I’m glad to get out.”

Patrons stand by at the Natural Choice on Meyran Avenue. Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

Patrons stand by at the Natural Choice on Meyran Avenue. Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

Take Natural Choice on Meyran Avenue. Decked out with shelves full of vinyl records, vintage lighting and a lone Willie Stargell-era Pittsburgh Pirates helmet, Natural Choice engages clients with images of the past while running a business that looks to the future.

Opening in 1997 as a small, four-seat barbershop, Natural Choice has since expanded to the adjacent storefront, becoming a full-service barbershop and salon in 2001. The owner of Natural Choice, Nate Mitchell, 41, has seen the hair industry come back in style firsthand.

“In the last three years, barber shops have been popping up all over the place,” Mitchell said.

“[Potential shopkeepers] are starting to see the barbering industry as an actual viable career, whereas people didn’t necessarily look at it that way for quite some time.”

Mitchell, who DJs on the side as a “sanity profession,” is adding barbers, expanding hours, advertising and planning on opening up a second shop in another neighborhood.

“This town is blue collar, and it’s always just been meat and potatoes and a buzz cut,” said Mitchell, a fifth generation Pittsburgher who grew up in Homewood and attended Allderdice High School. “Now, a lot of men are paying attention to themselves.”

Mitchell, for example, began cutting hair in high school when he would visit his local barbershop once or twice a week, prompting his parents to buy him a pair of clippers which he used to practice on himself and his friends at school.

Some of those whom Mitchell used to practice on in the early 1990s still come see him regularly. Without having ever embarked on a serious advertising campaign, Mitchell owes much of his customer retention to the quality of his work.  

“To build up that clientele is not the easiest thing to do,” Mitchell said, “but once you establish a clientele, you pretty much have them for life so long as you keep doing your thing [and] perform well.”

Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

Katie Krater | Staff Photographer

James Ponce, a junior political science major, is a customer who keeps coming back to Mitchell.

[Natural Choice] reminds me of New York,” Ponce said, who himself is from Long Island. “I doubt anywhere else I’ll get that vibe … you can talk to your barber about whatever comes to mind, and they’re very friendly there.”

Enrico Bellisario, 66, who owns Enrico’s Hair Cutting for Men just across the street, saw increased business during one summer about six years ago. After asking new clients how they heard of him, Enrico found that young people in the area saw the shop’s positive Internet reviews, from Google to Yelp, including exposure from his own website.

“Of course I gotta do the head right to get the good reviews,” Bellisario said.

Enrico’s, which offers regular cuts, razor cuts and a hybrid “texture cut,” is the more traditional counterpart to Natural Choice. Short on the sides and back, long on top is the most common request, according to the shop’s owner, an Oakland native.

“Enrico’s has a unique atmosphere that you wouldn’t find at any other chain shop,” said Roman Kasparian, a first-year computer science major. “Enrico is the only barber, so getting a haircut feels a lot more personal.”

Bellisario, who began cutting hair at age 16, initially made a name for himself in the late 1960s when he would leave college students’ hair long, thereby distinguishing himself from the other barbers who “would just massacre” the long hair, he said.

Once he built enough clients to open his own shop on Meyran Avenue, he would advertise by “hitting every bulletin board possible” with flyers, even pulling off a deal with Carnegie Mellon University’s mailman.

“I gave him a haircut, and he would let me stuff all the mailboxes everywhere,” Bellisario said.

Bellisario was able to accommodate for the influx of clients not by expansion but by invention. Most notably, he designed a gadget he calls “Shear Fuzion,” a patented combination of scissor and comb. The device, designed to minimize the cumbersome exchange between combing the hair and cutting it, cuts off at least two to three minutes off of every cut, according to Bellisario.

“That’s why I’m able to do so many heads,” Bellisario said.

He added that he has seen a noticeable increase in Chinese-speaking students in the past two years. The demand coming from foreign students, particularly those from China, lead Oliverio to go so far as to print Chinese characters on his storefront sign.

For Oliverio, one of the niceties of having foreign customers is getting to share in an unfamiliar culture.

“One of the reasons I like what I do is I meet people from all over,” Oliverio said. “And I get to hear what it’s like where they live, what they do and what they think of Pittsburgh.”

An influx of young people, along with increased attentiveness to their looks and their use of the internet to seek out local shops, has certainly put local barbershops and hair salons back in style. But with threats looming from national chain stores, local shops such as Natural Choice, Enrico’s or Oliverio will depend on the invulnerability of the homegrown atmosphere to remain in style.

“We try and create an atmosphere where people can come and just relax,” said Mitchell of Natural Choice, “like that third space — you got your home, your work, you need a place to go that maybe isn’t the bar.”

Mitchell added that the chain stores offer such a drastically different experience that he doesn’t see them as a threat.

“No matter what your profession, your walk of life, your status, you come in and everyone’s exactly the same,”  Mitchell said. “What you get at our barbershop is the atmosphere … It’s real people. It’s not manufactured.”

Leave a comment.

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper
Short on the sides, long on top: Barber shops find success in Oakland