By Hazen Cuyler
‘Do you want to move to New York?’ Javier Benavent asked his wife, Helena. “Tomorrow,” she replied. And the couple departed from Spain, from their home, 20 days later. That was 11 years ago. Today, Javier is the owner and sole hairstylist at Theater Hair Salon, on Amsterdam Avenue and 93rd Street.
“I found a job in Manhattan,” he told me, “and I started working [at a place] in front of Columbia University without speaking English. The first six, eight months, I cried, I literally cried, because I felt like I was one more piece of furniture. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I used to work with my laptop and the client would pick a hairstyle on the internet. After [the haircut] I used to be just one more piece of furniture in the corner again.”
Six years in America and Javier would become fluent in English, launch Theater Hair Salon on the Upper West Side, and garner a near-perfect rating on Google with over 100 individual five-star reviews. Skimming through the feedback, a common phrase sifts through the praise, “Best Salon in NYC!”
“Spain is where the clientele are the most demanding in the world,” Javier said. “People go to the salon once a week, women mostly. Men go once a month, once every 40 days, no longer. You have to be trained for at least two years in either a private or public school for hairstyle. Then, you must work an internship as a hairstylist for at least one year.”
In his youth, a 13-year-old Javier visited the local hair salon for a trim. His regular barber was attending to another customer, so Javier sat and watched the hairstylists at work. Suddenly, he began to laugh, and his barber paused. “What’s so funny?” he asked Javier. “Tell us the joke and we’ll all laugh with you.” But there was no joke. It was a feeling that overcame him — the moment Javier discovered his passion and profession. “I became very interested. They worked like sculptors.”
Javier’s mother visited the salon two times every week, mostly to blow-dry her hair. Inspired by his fresh sense of purpose, Javier asked if she would limit her visits to once a week so that he could practice blow-drying her hair on the weekends. She agreed and Javier began styling not only his mother’s hair, but her friends’ and his father’s as well.
“But I didn’t cut their hair. I used to do blow-dries. I used to just try to break my hands.” He held his thick hands toward me, “When you’ve never done any handy job, your hands are like one piece. You have to teach your hands how to move around. In my case, I have big hands with very wide fingers. But I can put my fingers into places that you cannot. It’s just skills that you develop with training.”
Prior to the web, and in a high school without hairstyle classes, Javier purchased books and studied cosmetology independently. He would walk to salons, stand outside their windows, and observe the movement of the stylists within. After finally graduating from high school, he enrolled at a hairstyle academy. While enrolled at the academy, he worked in his parents’ business during the day, attended school in the afternoon and stayed late to observe the older students’ lessons.
By his second year, a national competition was held to determine Spain’s greatest hairstylist. Javier not only won and became “Spain’s Hairstyle Champion,” but graduated six months early and was hired to teach at the academy. “After 37 years of doing my profession,” he said, “after working in fashion for over 25 years and managing a lot of hair stylists, I’m still learning.”
When you arrive at Theater Hair Salon’s modest Amsterdam Avenue storefront, you are embraced by the comfort of a clean, white space. Helena’s smile greets you at the front desk. She washes your hair, offers you coffee, and brings you to Javier who begins to speak of Spain and a world of hairstyling foreign to many Americans rushing to fit in a quick buzzcut. It is a warm mom-and-pop shop whose meticulous service has been carefully refined by a dedicated and passionate artist.
In the salon there are seven chairs, three sinks, and two employees — a husband and a wife — a host and a hairstylist.