Originally published on Ditmas Park Corner, March 15, 2012.
“I have good news and I have bad news,” Leon Kogut tells the man whose hair he’s just cut. “The good news is you look great. The bad news, you can’t eat for two hours, or the hair will grow back.”
Leon brushes the man’s shoulders and lets him stand up to leave, takes his money for the cut, and sends him on his way with the phrase that’s on the barber pole outside of his Newkirk Plaza shop: “Look better, feel better!”
Leon’s Fantasy Cut has been operating in its place on the Plaza since 1991, when Leon moved from a location in Manhattan, where he’d been priced out by the landlord–none other than Donald Trump. Now customers who have been coming to him since they were children pass by and wave, while Leon checks the bangs of a boy he hopes is a future lifelong customer. In his 21 years on the Plaza, he’s seen a lot of change, but the NYC Transit construction made the past three years particularly difficult.
“We’ve lost four stores on the Plaza,” he says. “We all try to survive. I try to tell everyone it’s going to be better.”
Like so many places in our neighborhood, it’s a community effort on the Plaza. And Leon hopes that a milestone at his shop will lift the spirits, and the public knowledge, of all the great businesses that share this unique location. This week, Leon’s shop celebrates 100 years of continual operation, and he’s throwing a party to celebrate on May 19 — and he sincerely hopes you will all come out for a drink.
Paul’s Barber Shop opened on Newkirk Plaza in 1912, four years after the deck — the oldest open-air shopping mall in the country — was completed above the subway tracks. John took over from Paul in the ’50s, and then Leon from John. Three owners in 100 years (Leon doesn’t the woman who owned the shop for a few days before John did), and not much has changed on the inside. The same Italian marble countertops, the same wooden cabinets, the same mirrors and barber chairs.
Though Leon honors the history of the shop, keeping old photos front and center, he’s got his own ones up as well. There are several photos of his family, and pieces of basketball memorabilia, in every corner. Leon is incredibly proud of his son, Marat, an NBA referee who he’s hoping can help convince Knicks star Jeremy Lin to attend the anniversary party in May. (One photo that’s not hanging in the shop is a shot of Leon and Kim Kardashian, who he met at a game at Madison Square Garden–he says his wife made him take the picture down, concerned what people would think. The Koguts just celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary, and Leon says that’s hard to believe: “It’s like we just met!”) He’s also counting on several city officials to come — including a key staff member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who happens to be a longtime customer.
In addition to the politicians and media that are expected to show, he wants the celebration to feature entertainment for the kids. Marat, who Leon says is a great ref and a great magician, may break out some of his tricks, and if enough people can convince him, I think we can get Leon to play some songs. He studied music and played in a band in Russia (“mostly weddings,” says Leon, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in ’79), and he still finds time to play the keyboard and the accordion at home. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to at the party, though.
“I’ll be busy pouring drinks,” he says. “I want this to shake up the neighborhood a little bit!”
The celebration is planned for Saturday, May 19, starting at about 11am. We’ll keep you posted about the details, but until then, be sure to stop in for a haircut, and wish him and his shop another hundred years!