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Astoria Characters: The Barbershop Duo

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When the door is open, the music of the bouzouki drifts out into 29th Street like a dream. That's how you know when Nikos and Tasoula Zigouris are between customers.

At their barbershop, Nikos & Tasoula Hair Style for Men & Women, haircuts start at $10, and a shave and a snip sometimes come with a song.

Nikos, you see, is a magician of a musician, and he can't keep his fingers idle when he's sans scissors. So he takes his bouzouki or his baglama or his violin or his guitar off the back wall and strums the Greek tunes he knew when he had the glorious head of hair that God gave him.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nikos, the bouzouki barber.

Tasoula, his wife, likes to listen because it makes the time pass pleasantly. Back in the day, he tried to teach her to play with him, but she didn't take to the idea of a duet. (More photos.)

On this morning, Tasoula, a short woman with fluffy, jet-black hair, takes the first customer while Nikos sits in the window with his bouzouki. When the second customer comes in, Nikos puts on his wire-rim spectacles and takes up his scissors. His snip, snip, snip is a symphony of yearning.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tasoula, the barbershop beautician.

Nobody knows how long there's been a barbershop in this space, but there were two previous owners before Nikos and Tasoula took over in 1987. They estimate that hair cutting has been done on the premises for nearly a century. They have several elderly customers who remember coming in to get their baby curls cut off.

Nikos and Tasoula have left the place just as it was; they like the old-fashioned look. The mere mention of "fancy new stuff" that the new generation likes makes Tasoula frown.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The shop on 29th Street.

Outside, there's a striped barber pole that lights up. Alongside it, a Greek flag furls itself around the Stars and Stripes like a scarf. The red, white and blue circular signs in the window, above photos of Greece and the Twin Towers, advertise the styles: Flat Top, Seasar, Skin Fades, Tape Up and Mushroom.

Inside, the walls are Pepto-Bismol pink, and the mottled linoleum floor dates from the times of blue suede shoes. There's a fancy metal barber chair, which Nikos thinks has hit the century mark.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tasoula works on a customer.

Mounted high on the back wall, there's an old-style oscillating GE fan that waves a pair of Greek flags when it's turned on.

An antique cash register, its keys crusted with the dust of times gone by, is doing duty as a shelf for letters and Nikos' polychrome plectrums.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Plectrums are Nikos' pride and priority.

Nikos and Tasoula hail from Servia Kozanis, a tiny Greek town whose population doesn't top 5,000. Nikos is nearly two decades Tasoula's senior, and they didn't know each other when they were growing up.

Nikos, who picked up his first musical instrument when he was 8, made quite a name for himself as an entertainer.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The shop hasn't changed much since Nikos and Tasoula took over.

"He was famous, even in big cities like Athens," Tasoula says proudly.

He also had his own barber business, but after serving in the Greek army, he decided to seek his fortune abroad. He brought his bouzouki to Germany then Canada and finally New York City.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A sign you won't see in any other barbershop.

Tasoula went to beauty school instead of high school, but she never got her license because her parents wouldn't let her venture to the big city to apply for it. They knew Nikos, and when he came to his hometown for a vacation, they suggested he marry their 17-year-old daughter.

"The wedding was two months after we met," Tasoula says. "My parents told me to take him whether I liked him or not."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A headshot of Tasoula's comb and scissors.

Fortunately, she did like him. They came straight back to New York City, where Nikos was playing a lot of club gigs. But once their two daughters were born, he wanted to be home at night. He opened the shop when the girls were teens, and Tasoula has played beautician to his barber ever since.

Technically, Nikos, who is 72 1/2, has been retired for six years, but he still comes to the shop. They have five grandchildren with a sixth on the way, so he's been filling in for Tasoula when she's babysitting them.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tasoula takes a break.

Cutting hair is hard work, Tasoula says. You're on your feet all day. It doesn't help that the shop is open six days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. A hand-lettered sign in the window proclaims "Sunday We Close."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The shop's sink has been in service for decades.

"I'll be here until I'm 65 if my health holds up," she says.

It's only 10 a.m., and three customers have already had trims. Nikos sweeps snippets of hair off the old linoleum and once again, makes the big barber chair his stage. The show, after all, must go on as soon as his scissors stop.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nikos and Tasoula, fixtures at their stations.

"I love music," he says, adding that he still performs whenever he's asked to. "It's my life."

At least until the next customer comes calling for a cut.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2012 by Nancy A. Ruhling