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Allean Elam: A cut above the rest

MAHALET DEJENE | 4/12/2011, 4:45 p.m.
Allean Elam (Bams photo)

Allean Elam, 88, owner of one of the oldest barbershops in Harlem, is still going strong. Morningside Barber Shop, nestled between a hair salon and a wellness center, has been a fully functioning barbershop since the '60s.

"It was difficult, but I enjoyed it," said Elam, "Everyone was excited--a woman cutting hair!"

Elam was one of the only women cutting men's hair in New York and she loved it. From 1965, Elam worked as a manager and hairstylist at the current shop location (220 116th St., between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevards), and then moved to a vacant shop on Manhattan Avenue in 1969. She worked there for two years but wanted to move to a larger space. Luckily, the current shop location was vacated around that time and she was able to return to Morningside Barber Shop and make it her own.

"I liked it better back then," said Elam, recalling the energy of working in a vibrant community in Harlem, "People were friendlier and my business was good."

Elam had enjoyed working in the predominantly male field and was not afraid to face opposition that inevitably came. "Some of the young guys said, 'No ladies,' but after they saw me cutting they liked it. 'There's a lady on 116th Street!' they said. 'Go to her!'"

And yet, her successes in New York came many years after family tragedies gripped her and her siblings. Born in Lincolnton, Ga., Elam recalled the slow and easy life in the South. After her parents passed away, Elam and her brothers and sister moved to Hashville, N.C., when she was 18. A year later, Elam moved to New York with her aunt. Elam lived on 115th Street until 1955, after which she moved to the St. Auburn, Queens, home she lives in to this day. Although she had four children, only two are still alive today. However heavy her personal life would weigh, her spirit to pursue her career aspirations were never dampened.

Elam knew she wanted to combine being a barber and a beautician and decided to go back to school to do just that. All of the training she picked up over 50 years ago is still being practiced today since Elam still cuts with a straight razor in a time where tradition has been exchanged for efficiency.

That's not the only traditional part of Elam's professional life. The Morningside Barber Shop is still the image of antiquity, hosting the same light switches, chairs and decor as it did when it opened. There is even a classic Coke dispenser near the entrance that pops out cans of Coke, Fanta and Sprite, among other refreshments.

The walls of the shop are lined with portraits of various Black leaders, friends and family members and images of the different places Elam has traveled to.

"I love to travel," said Elam, who has been to many countries including India, Egypt, China and Singapore. She used to travel once a year at one point in her life, but now tries to leave the country at least once every three years.