Astor Place’s Closest Shave

At Astor Place Hairstylists the other day, a businessman and a barber sat around talking razors. Electric, disposable, Harry’s, Schick, safety, straight: “It’s a three-billion-dollar industry!” Jonathan Trichter, the businessman, said. “When Gillette came out with the Mach 3, they put seven hundred fifty million into manufacturing and development. It took seven years.” Joel Valle, the barber, had constructed his first prototype—“a bendable razor blade!”—in prison, for the cost of a can of soda. “We’ll roll it out here. We’ll be the test kitchen,” Trichter said. “Then we’ll sell direct to consumers!”

Illustration by João Fazenda

Trichter, a former banker with J. P. Morgan, bought the barbershop two years ago, after the Vezza family, its owner for about seventy-five years, announced during the pandemic that they were closing it. “It couldn’t be like a vulture came in and picked it up,” Trichter said. “I could not look like a scumbag. So I probably overpaid.” He wore a made-to-measure suit over a monogrammed shirt. The purchase was more about fame than about fortune. “It’ll be the first line of my obituary,” he said.

Valle held up a handmade straight razor whose handle was studded with plastic gems. It had a bendable blade, curved like a scythe. Trichter looked at Valle and said, “You can step in if you want, but I’m gonna tell your story.” He went on, “So . . . he did a five-year stint in the federal penitentiary for cocaine—”

“One thousand one hundred seventy-­three grams,” Valle interjected. “I thought it was the end of my life. But it was the best thing that happened. I wouldn’t have come up with the idea of the razor.” He elaborated: “The only thing you have to play with in there is the trash.” At first, Valle, who is tattooed from head to toe (“Dick, balls, ass—I’m tatted up!” he said), melted down plastic (toothbrushes, water-bottle caps) to make a knife. “Anything could happen at any time,” he explained. “Thank God I didn’t have to use it.”

Before long, he started applying his ingenuity to matters of grooming. He crushed the graphite from pencils and mixed it with baby powder to make hair dye. He offered facial treatments (toothpaste mixed with Noxzema and sliced cucumbers) to lifers in their cells. One day, a guard asked what was going on. An incarcerated man replied, “This mothafucka turned this place into a spa!”

Valle had started out cutting the hair of local fishermen, in Puerto Rico, when he was nine; by 2006, he was giving trims to Newark’s mayor Cory Booker. “My entire life, I was gonna be a barber,” Valle said. After his drug arrest, in 2013, he began working as a jailhouse hair stylist. One problem: scissors were hard to come by at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where he landed before being sent to a maximum-­security prison in Pennsylvania. But he had an idea. By attaching a razor blade to a comb, he made his own razor-­comb, and soon he was blending fades like a pro. The guys paid him in packs of tuna. “I was eating every day like a king,” he said. He noticed that some prison barbers were using nail clippers; others used toothbrushes as combs. People loved that Valle did things differently. (Reached by phone, one of his former clients, who is currently at the Pennsylvania prison where Valle did time, said, “He can cut hair real good, yes indeed.”)

Cartoon by P. C. Vey

Valle went on, “Everybody’s got visitation. Everybody’s gotta look good for family. If you’re somebody that can make that man look good, that man will kill for you in there.”

In prison, a close shave is a different matter entirely. Valle had another idea. He would remove the blades from plastic disposables and hold them carefully in his fingers to give precision shaves. Next, he tried using his prison I.D. card as a handle. In 2015, he perfected his masterpiece, which he called the “Go 2 Razzor.”

He demonstrated the gizmo on a customer. “This is what barbers have been using for more than a hundred years,” he said, holding up a box of Derby professional chromium-ceramic-­platinum-tungsten blades. He shook his head. He picked up a pair of scissors and cut into a ginger-ale can, then folded a square of aluminum around one of the razor blades. By gripping the aluminum, he could bend the blade into different arcs. The result? The O.G. version of his ­patent-pending bendable razor blade. (He and Trichter plan to split the profits.) “With this, I used to make the saddest man in prison happy,” he said.

Trichter said, “Inmate innovation!”

“The bending is what makes it different,” Valle added. “It can adjust to any facial structure!”

Trichter watched nervously as the customer got the closest shave of his life. After Valle wiped off the lather, he plugged his side hustle. “I also sell Frenchies—French bulldogs,” he said. “I’ve got, like, twenty. You want me to bring you one?”

Published in the print edition of the April 10, 2023, issue, with the headline “Close Shave.”

By Adam Iscoe,
The New Yorker | April 10, 2023
Illustration by João Fazenda | Cartoon by P. C. Vey