By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — When a divorce and the economy forced Brenda Braxton to close her upscale barbershop and salon at the end of 2009, she knew the demand for her unique services would eventually bring her back.
The BBraxton salon, located at 1400 Fifth Avenue at 116th Street, catered specifically to men. Haircuts were finished with a hot towel, and if men were into advanced grooming, there were rooms for pedicures, manicures, facials and massages. You could even get a cocktail.
"It's almost like they were waiting for something like this," said Braxton of how the neighborhood felt about her specialty offerings. "People realized how much they missed us after we were gone."
The salon reopened at the end of January after Braxton was able to settle the details of her divorce and get new financial partners. Braxton added Antoinette Williams, who had just retired from the postal service, as a co-owner.
Braxton, who is also a Tony-nominated Broadway actress with roles in "Chicago," "Dreamgirls" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" among others, got the idea for the salon after reading a magazine piece about a guy with unkempt toes who started wearing sandals to the chagrin of his wife. The guy said he would be willing to get his feet done but that he didn't want to be in a salon full of women.
"It doesn't make you less of a man to get a facial but this is an environment for gentlemen. They don't have to worry about sitting in a pedicure booth with a woman next to him looking at those feet," Braxton said with a chuckle. "They can talk and just be."
The salon caters to black and Latino men of varying financial backgrounds, but as the mix of Harlem's residents have shifted since the salon opened in 2006 — so has its customers.
"We get the Con Ed man, the CEO, the mom introducing her son to grooming for the first time," said Braxton.
Tarik Dalton, 33, a banker from Credit Suisse, said he came back to BBraxton as soon as he heard it was re-opening. In between, he had five or six different barbers and one who kept changing the price
"My time is valuable. I've got a wife and kids," he said. "And I like the professional atmosphere. I can't deal with going to a place where the barber doesn't show up."
Carlos Nunez, 36, a construction worker, said he especially liked that he didn't have to deal with people coming into the salon to sell bootlegged DVDs and other such items, a common problem for barbershops in the area.
"This is the best part," Nunez said after his barber Chris LaSalle, 30, put moisturizer on his face and then wrapped him in a steaming hot towel. "This makes you feel like a baby."
The environment is making him think about doing some additional grooming.
"My girl told me I should get my nails done. I've been thinking about it," Nunez said.
LaSalle said that's because the shop just makes men feel comfortable.
"You can breathe in here. It's comfortable. I want to come to work now," he added.
Braxton says that's because she wanted a truly gentlemanly environment.
She also wants to make an impact in her community. She said she opened a grooming academy for barbers and manicurists in training. Braxton is also launching an effort to get more female barbers involved in the business.
"While I was closed I kept thinking I want to re-open but do more. So many businesses just take and I wanted to embrace the community," Braxton said.
The shop is not just a side excursion for the Broadway actor, but something Braxton said she is focusing on going forward because she knows her acting career won't last forever. There are plans for a line of branded grooming products, and on many days, Braxton can be found at the front door greeting customers or jamming to the music.
"Gentlemen, especially our gentlemen, want to feel special," said Braxton.