W hen people drive past Luis “Wiso” Gonzales’s barbershop, they often do a double-take. “Sacan pictures because no pueden creer,” Gonzales says in Spanglish. They take pictures because they can’t believe it.
The twist of Gonzales’s shop is that it’s tucked inside a white Ford E350 minibus. The bus parks on the Fair Haven side of the Chapel Street bridge, across from Criscuolo Park, enticements marking its white body: “Best in town.” “Se habla español.” Buzzing like a noisy snout, a generator mounted on the grill powers the electric razors, sink, barber’s poles and a 40” flat screen TV to keep customers entertained. Gonzales says newcomers see it all and think it’s “algo como loco”—something rather crazy.
Gonzales, a native of Puerto Rico, credits the idea to the imagination of his eldest son, Yandel. When Yandel was 7, he pointed to a parked bus—a “guagua,” as they’re often called in the Caribbean—and said, “Why not have a barbershop in there?” Although most of us would’ve smiled and moved on, it got Gonzales wondering. He went up to the window and peered inside. It was more spacious than he’d thought.
In 2010, he bought his current E350 and retrofitted it. He worked out of the minibus on weekends while doing most of his scissor work on the Fair Haven stretch of Grand Avenue, which is so dense with barbershops that you can find five on a single block.
Gonzales says he’s worked at many of the shops along Grand Avenue, though he credits Ray’s Salon in East Haven as the place he cut his teeth cutting hair. He’s got a good eye for old faces, he says, recognizing grown-up patrons from when the tops of their heads barely reached his hip. Naturally, some of them are now bigger than he is.
The Wednesday I visited, a young man named Mario was getting his weekly buzz, his pine green truck parked next to the E350. According to Mario, the best times to walk in are midday Tuesday or Wednesday. “Fridays and Saturdays,” he says, “you can’t get in here.”
That’s because there’s not much space to get into. With only a single barber chair, lines are quick to form. Appointments can be made in advance, but walk-ins seem to make up most of his business. For those who find themselves waiting, the truck is furnished with two orange-brown living room chairs and a cushioned bench, from which people can watch Spanish-language programming on a TV, read magazines or simply chat. Given the dimensions, any barbershop banter that happens involves the entire shop. There’s really only room for a single conversation, and odds are good that that conversation is in Spanish.
Gonzales speaks some English but is far more comfortable with his native tongue. Most, but not all, of his clients are Hispanic men looking for either a simple $12 cut or, for $15, a cut and a facial shave/trim. But while straight-ahead men’s cuts are Gonzales’s specialty, he says he can handle anyone that comes in the door, women included.
Though Gonzales’s barbershop is a fully functioning road vehicle, it always spends its business hours in the same place, in that off-street spot across from Criscuolo Park, just east of the Chapel Street Bridge. The property owner is Gonzales’s friend, he says, letting him park there free of charge in exchange for keeping the lot clean.
As freshly trimmed Mario’s truck pulls away, revealing the vista of Criscuolo—its trees beginning to bloom, its field leaping into verdure and its neighboring river glistening—Gonzales reveals why he likes to work over here, well off the main thoroughfare, in his tiny one-chair barbershop.
“I like the quiet,” he says, despite the generator and the TV and the barbershop chatter. “It’s more tranquilo.”
Mobile Barber Shop
Near 281 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tue-Thur 9am-6pm, Fri-Sat 9am-8pm, Sun 7am-1pm
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.