The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Barber's shop octet


Why are there so many barber's shops in Camberwell? Robert Wainwright meets eight sharp clippers

It was just before Christmas a few years back. Winter’s shroud has descended by late afternoon as my wife, Paola, and I walked along Camberwell Church Street. We paused outside Gabby’s Barbers, captured by the light which had turned the bright orange window into an iridescent picture frame of a scene within the shop that could have been painted by Norman Rockwell.

A dozen or more men gathered inside, some having their hair cut and others waiting on chairs and benches behind. Everyone was frozen, faces staring upwards at a television screen which was showing a football match. A penalty was being taken by one of the teams. The anxious expectation was riveting. The player scored and the shop was suddenly full of leaping, happy customers. Even the barbers put down their scissors to join the fun before the serious business of cutting hair resumed.

The scene was not unusual, as online reviews show. Gabby’s was a regular gathering place for football, Nigerian “Nollywood” movies, even boisterous debates between barbers as they clipped away: “Never a dull moment,” said one happy customer. “More than just barber shop; it’s a community,” observed another. “They make everyone feels welcome and take their time for every haircut and value for money.”

At the centre of the crowd that night was owner and namesake Gabby Matiz who opened his business 13 years ago after training as a barber in a shop down the street. He grins when talking about the football nights but the smile fades when the conversation moves to how times have changed under Covid’s pall:

“People would come after work, not just for a haircut but to watch the football for a few hours. Sometimes we would 20 or more people so it was a fun place, but nowadays we have to be careful. We can’t let people stay just to watch the game. That would be dangerous to have too many people inside at the same time. People are scared because of Covid and stay home, even cutting their own hair.”

As evidence of how tough it’s been, Gabby shows me how he has been forced to literally cut his salon in half, erecting a stud wall and offering the other half for rent. Where once there were four barbers and two trainees, he now three or four: “I have lost half my business but we are struggling through. I’d like things to return to the days of football games on TV.”

Gabby’s struggles are not unusual at a difficult time for business, the pandemic’s challenges compounded by the growth in the number of barber shops operating in central Camberwell. There are now eight, from a two-man bolthole to salons catering for the hipster crowd and African clientele, all fuelled by an evolving community and busier streets.

The owners and barbers are a diverse group, often independent operators rather than employees who have struggled through the last 18 months but managed to maintain most of their clientele.

Ahmed Hamid runs Stars Barbers at No.33 Denmark Hill where he cuts, trims, shaves and buffs customers beneath a photo of his hero, boxer Muhammed Ali in his classic defeat over Sonny Liston: “I’m a big boxing fan. People call me Ali,” he grins, pointing to the obvious reference above his head.

Ali, who migrated from Iraq, opened his doors eight years ago in what had been a jewellery shop: “I used to live in Oval and would often come to Camberwell to socialise. I could see there was a need for barbers here so I took the chance on this place. It wasn’t difficult to find clients. I keep my prices low and work hard on customer service.”

Ali also found love in Camberwell, meeting his wife Kat who worked in a nearby shop. They have now settled locally and have three children: “Camberwell has been very good for me. I have seen the place change a lot; there are so many more young people around and the streets are so much better.”

A few doors up the street, Ersen Eray and his business partner Mevlut Tok spend a fair bit of time each day watching the passing human traffic outside their salon, Refined Male Grooming at 77 Denmark Hill.

But don’t think for a moment that they are whiling away time or struggling for customers. In fact, the pair are hard at work observing the hair styles in the streets of Camberwell in order to keep up with rapidly changing trends across the city.

“Once we spot something new we can replicate it pretty easily,” says Ersen who, like his neighbour Ali, opened the business eight years ago when he spotted an opportunity to run his own business. Before then he had been working in a barbers at Nunhead but was always looking for a chance to move into Camberwell.

“I grew up here, at the top of the hill. My parents ran the Seven Stars Drycleaners for years and I know Camberwell like the back of my hand. There were only a couple of barbers then so we had the chance to establish ourselves before things changed.”

Ersen and Melvut offer a breadth of styles and clientele from inside their warm and inviting premises, the walls lined with a mixture of oils and soaps and hairdressing-related art. Even the sun-bed out the back is popular: “We do the lot, even afro-style and beards which is the in-thing at the moment. We try to keep the barbers shop experience as authentic as possible. It’s nice to see Camberwell change and grow. It has a personality all its own and I hope that continues.”

Crown and Glory at 10 Coldharbour Lane opened twenty years ago, catering mainly for the West Indian community. Each of the three barbers inside the striking black and white decorated salon are independent operators rather than employees which made Covid an even more difficult period, according to Steve who has been cutting hair there for the past decade.

“We have been very careful during Covid to only operate when we could, and hopefully we have now seen the worst of it,” he said, donning a mask for the interview. “The other challenge has been the growth here in Camberwell because there are a lot more barber shops than ever before.”

Trends are also changing, he says. Where once his customers wanted precision cutting and styling, the demand has changed: “All the young people want plats or skin fades, like the football players they follow, so we have to adapt our skills.”

Spare a thought for Ash, Sam, Ras and Adam Babeker who took a lease on premises at 16 Denmark Hill in December 2020, just as the second Covid lockdown struck London. The brothers viewed Camberwell as a natural progression from their long-time successful business, Venus Barbers at Clapham where they learned the trade from their father.

But it would be four months before restrictions were lifted and they could open the new shop, named Camberwell Barbers. Manager Rega Farhan is now leading a four-man team, each dressed smartly in monogrammed shirts, hoping to make up for the delays, “keeping it simple” by focussing on traditional services like cutthroat razor shaves, beard trims and sculpting:

“Customer service is a real key for us because you want people to come back again and again,” he says. “We’ve worked hard in a short time to establish a regular clientele base and I just hope we can get through the Covid winter to make that count.”

FG Barbers at 36 Camberwell Church Street is another than opened since Covid struck. Owner Mohammed Guarziz, who has run a successful salon Lewisham for twenty years, knew he was taking a risk when he leased the former café:

“We’ve had to close three times already and it’s been tough,” he says. “Business is slower than I’d like but we’re managing our way through it. People used to come in once a week for their trim or shave but now they come less and less because they are being careful or they are changing habits. I hope it changes soon.”

Another newcomer is Off-Cut at No.1 Camberwell Grove, one of three salons opened by the company in the past two years (the others are in Crystal Palace and Streatham) which led to an invitation to exhibit on the “Modern Barber” stage at the Salon International event held at the Excel in October.

Where other trade on being traditional, staff at Off-Cut are considered not only barbers but “trend-setters”, offering consultations on style options and advice to serious beard aficionados about shaving regimes in which direction of hair growth and skin sensitivity are taken into account. If that’s all a bit much then you can just pop in for a short back and sides.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival