Barber shops and beauty salons: the unlikely community centres of Roman Road

Writer Matt Ludlow contemplates the role of barber shops and salons and how they provide the social glue within communities.

Some people bemoan the number of hairdressers on Roman Road, but look more closely inside these grooming establishments and you will find they offer a lot more than a cut and blow dry.

Not only are they a testament to our culturally rich community, but in fact, they offer a social sticking plaster like no other. Where else offers a judgment-free space where you can offload your problems, or act as a welcoming place to leave the kids for half an hour? Where else is a place of comfort, conversation and pampering – a home away from home?

A cultural cross-section of barbershops and salons

Bow and Globe Town are diverse areas with British, European, Asian and Middle Eastern threads woven into the local fabric. It’s a narrative of racial integration; the perpetual movement of people enriching the area through their culture.

Found along the entire length of Roman Road and its tributaries, the owners of these beauty salons and barbers represent all corners of the world, personifying the positive impact of inward migration on the area.

‘You see all walks of life through the door. From the working class – born and bred in east London – to city people, commuters, people from media, advertising and fashion,’ James Cox (more commonly known as ‘Jimmy’) remarks. Cox is the fast-talking owner of Jimmy Slick’s barbershop, which opened on Roman Road just over a year ago.

The Essex-born entrepreneur looks the way his name might suggest: sleeved in rockabilly tattoos with a short, sleek crop. It’s the most diverse area in London in my opinion, and it adapts to a lot of people,” he says.

 It’s a sentiment echoed by MD Zubaer Hussain (aka ‘Toni’), the equally loquacious owner of Toni & Tiger Barber Club on Globe Road. ‘I love the area because it has such a mix of nationalities… I love the new experiences that others can bring through my door,’ he says.

Hussain moved to the UK from Bangladesh in 2008, and like Cox built his business from the ground up, expanding his client base as he went. ‘I started with about 80% Bengali customers, but as my reputation grew in the area, that changed. Now I have 75% mixed European and English; the rest are Bengali,’ he says with a keen smile. 

As one of the area’s longest standing salons, Reids is well placed to comment on the changing landscape of the East End. ‘Things have definitely changed for the better,’ says Bobby Panayiotou, who runs the unisex salon on Roman Road with his sister. ‘Ten years ago it was a bit of a down and out place. But [not] now, with success stories like Cafe East.’

Panayiotou also notes how the types of people that live in the area have changed over the years. ‘Forty years ago it was predominantly white British East Enders, but now it’s very diverse,’ he says. And, like Farah, Cox and Hussain, he remarks on the influence it has on him personally. ‘It’s really interesting, meeting such a diverse group of people. I learn a lot about people and their cultures.’

The road to the Roman

The Reids story began in 1981 when Panayiotou’s late father, Andy Panayiotou, opened the first shop in a location a few doors down from their current premises. The name ‘Reids’ was actually taken from that first shop. ‘He thought it easier to keep Reids as the name above the door, rather than Panayiotou, which is Greek,’ he remembers. 

The family are from north London, but they see Bow as their surrogate home. Panayiotou still makes the journey over to east London every day, as he often did as a child. And when he was old enough Panayiotou started work in the shop as a men’s barber before eventually taking over the reigns of the business with his sister.

Naima Farah, the Somali-born owner of Naima Hair & Beauty Salon in Globe Town by comparison, is relatively new to the area, having moved to London from Somalia in 2005, before opening her salon in 2018. However, she quickly became a big part of community life. 

Farah was working as a freelance hair and beauty therapist when she discovered a need for a private, female-only salon. There wasn’t anywhere catering for Islamic women, enabling them to take their headscarves off in comfort. This inspired Farah to open a salon on Morpeth Street, and it quickly became a popular spot for local women seeking a more secluded experience.

Similarly, Hussain’s journey involved a considerable geographical shift: from Bangladesh to Bow by way of Birmingham.

He opened his first barbershop in Birmingham in 2009, not long after moving to the UK. Two shops later – one more in Birmingham and one in Bow – and Hussain was opening his current location on Globe Road. ‘This is my fourth shop in total, but I’m not finished yet,’ he says.

Cox found his way to barbering out of a need to make a living. After reading about Lee Stafford, a Soho-based hairdresser, he was inspired to approach hairdressing as a serious career. ‘He’s from Essex like me, and he would wear ripped jeans and deep V T-shirts–he was the first wideboy hairdresser,’ he says. This changed Jimmy’s perceptions of what it meant to work in a salon. 

His previous job at the barbers Rocket in Hackney, where he was known for doing tight, sharp haircuts was responsible for providing Cox with the nickname that he’s turned into a brand: ‘Jimmy Slick’, which opened on Roman Road in 2018.

The social glue of community

These businesses, and the stories of their owners contribute hugely to the local zeitgeist, as the interactions that take place within their walls are far more than just transactional. 

Panayiotou says, ‘I believe salons do play a pivotal role in the community. They’re a great place to meet and chat,’ he says. 

The welcoming atmosphere that Cox has cultivated in his barbershop is no mistake either. ‘I wanted to bring back the old community barbershop vibe,’ he says. He’s captured the essence of a classic barbershop and blended it with contemporary elements. 

His salon consists of a long room flanked on both sides with bright murals: tiger print, parrots and floral patterns. Copacabana comes to east London. A young lad is getting a trim. His father is chatting with the barber before Cox enters. Then the three of them begin laughing and joking in a scene that could’ve been lifted straight from a film. ‘I want to make it lively and welcoming so people feel comfortable and come back,’ Cox states. 

The scene at Toni & Tiger is similar. Hussain has made the space his own through painting motifs and logos with a distinctive red and black colour scheme. A customer enters and offers his own insight into why Hussain’s barbershop has been so successful. ‘I live in north London now but I always come back here because it’s a good haircut and he’s a nice guy,’ he says. ‘If the haircut was equally as good but he wasn’t a nice guy I wouldn’t make the effort to travel. That’s the difference.’ 

Creating a barbershop that’s central to community life has been ingrained in Hussain since before he left his home country. ‘In the Bangla community barbershops are central [to the community]. They’re very important,’ he says. His door is always open to his customers and his friends–not that Hussain makes the distinction between the two: ‘Sometimes they come in even when they’re not having a haircut!’ 

Farah likes to steer the conversations among customers in her salon towards positivity and empowerment. ‘Conversations are often to do with people’s goals and aspirations for the future,’ she says, ‘Many students will talk about their future careers and plans for starting a family.’ Farah’s salon has become a forum for inspiring young women in the community. 

Judgement-free spaces

What is it about salons and barbers that makes them so conducive to be social hubs?

Farah thinks it’s inevitable that hairdressers and their clients will become friends, given the length of time they spend together. ‘Salons and their owners play a fundamental role in the community because of the prolonged interactions they have with their clients,’ she says. ‘People come through the door as a stranger and they leave as a friend.’

It’s an idea that Cox elaborates on, ‘Of course, you end up making friends with people and building trust,’ he says. ‘People feel comfortable sharing with a barber because they become a friend, but not one that’s attached to their group of people.’ It’s a judgement-free space where people can be candid about their friends and family. As he jokes, ‘I could ruin lives with what I learn about people!’

There’s also a concerted effort by these business owners to continually adapt to meet the needs of an ever-changing client-base. Nobody knows this better than Panayiotou. ‘I like to learn a few words in the different languages of my customers. It helps you bond with them,’ he explains. ‘It’s also funny to surprise them by throwing out some words in their native language,’ he continues. 

Farah initially opened her salon to provide a private space for the young Islamic women in the area. But over the past year, as women of different faiths and backgrounds came through her door, she also adapted to meet their needs. ‘I love to provide a service to people that might feel as though they aren’t being catered for,’ she says, ‘Whether it’s Muslim women, women with afro hair or straight hair… they also all love the privacy.’ These are business owners with their fingers constantly on the local pulse, reacting to changes as they happen. 

The future of this culture

Even though barbershop culture isn’t isolated to this small neighbourhood in London, the environment along Roman Road and its adjacent streets is unique. The village or small town feel here cultivates the area’s communal character. 

Cox feels that this pocket of the capital has retained its sense of community over the years, something that’ll keep him firmly rooted in the area. ‘People are friendly with each other; from the girls in the salon, to the bike shop, the clothes shop and the coffee shop. It still feels like old east London,’ he says.

Farah agrees that despite linguistic and cultural variances, a strong community spirit endures. ‘Everyone is nice and happy, and they talk to each other. It’s more like a small town than London,’ she says, 

In summary, Panayiotou perfectly articulates this popular feeling towards the dual functionality of these businesses, offering grooming services and acting as community hubs, with this anecdote:  

‘I was talking to a customer the other day whose kid recently started school nearby. They were speaking to a local resident about not getting home on time for when their kid finishes school. And that person said, “Well, if they need to wait somewhere tell them to go into Reids. They’ll look after them in there,” which I thought was quite nice really.’

It’s difficult to imagine this corner of London without the community spirit that’s become its trademark over the last century. People will come and go in Globe Town and Bow, but the sense of community endures, played out in settings like our beauty salons and barbershops.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy reading about pharmacies on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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Matt Ludlow

Matt is a freelance writer based in Leyton. He has worked on a range of projects with clients from the UK, North America, Europe, and Asia. Matt also has experience working in the charity sector for homelessness and mental health organisations. In December 2018 he returned to London having lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he spent 18 months teaching English.

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