Chelten Ave. barber shop serves as gathering place and stepping stone

The cutters stand by their barber chairs as if on guard. A large television blasts MTV Jams or ESPN. Over the sound of clippers humming, men debate politics, sports, women and plans to close the neighborhood high school.

Welcome to The Castle Unisex Salon at 157 E. Chelten Ave., one of dozens of barbershops that dot Germantown’s streets.

In business for a decade, the Castle has attracted a loyal following in the neighborhood and beyond. Though it used to cut women’s hair, it now focuses on men.

The barbers speak

“Every guy who comes in here is like a work of art,” said veteran barber Ray Patterson. “I see every head as the canvas and I’m the artist. If I can help someone learn, that’s what it’s about, furthering the craft.”

Mikal Ellis — aka “Puzzle” or “Mr. Hollywood” — owns the establishment and has successfully promoted his “brand” with local residents and a plethora of professional athletes.

Among his customers are Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy and longtime NBA players Lamar Odom and Grant Hill.

“I cut the Sixers,” said Ellis, who makes house calls to the athletes at their homes. “I just worked with [Sixers forward] Thad Young on Easter.”

More than a shop

Like other barbershops in the neighborhood, the Castle is not just a place to get a hair cut. It’s also a place where men gather to swap stories, tell jokes and while away the time. Some customers come in just for the conversation.

For the barbers, the Castle is also a place to learn a trade and make a living.

“The Castle has been used as a stepping stone for barbers in the neighborhood,” explained Ellis, noting that some had gotten their start in the profession at his shop before opening shops of their own.

That’s the goal of Ron Wright, the newest barber at the Castle.

Known as “The Rookie” among his co-workers, Wright began cutting hair in West Philadelphia and came to Castle to improve his skills.

“I needed a way to make some money and ended up enjoying what I’m doing,” explained Wright, crediting Patterson with teaching him new techniques. “He gave me a lot of pointers to help me step my game up. He taught me how to blend in my fades and curve my lines.”

Specifics

The Castle is open for walk-ins from 7:30 am until around 7 p.m. six days a week. They’re closed on Sundays unless an appointment is scheduled.

Manager Mike Bucknor said the price varies by customer.

“First cut is always $15, but it really depends on the individual, whether they are getting designs or whatever,” he said. “A $20 cut could cost $30, $35 sometimes. Some people refuse to pay less than $30 or $40 for their haircut.”

Some customers come to the Castle because their barber has moved there from another shop.

Eddie Kane, for instance, followed Ray Patterson to the Castle three years ago and has been coming back ever since.

“I followed Ray because he is sharp,” Kane said. “It’s a clean, well-kept barber shop, and a nice place to spend time and talk about things.”

Kyle DeLone and A.J. Groy are La Salle University students who write for GermantownBeat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.