Column: A bargain barber tries to survive in an Echo Park that keeps rapidly changing

Cecilia Rios at her Echo Park Barber Shop in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Cecilia Rios was running a little behind schedule Tuesday morning, but her assistants had her covered.

“She’s on her way,” said Carlos Alvarez, who waited outside the Echo Barber Shop with his sidekick, Ricardo “Gordo” Torres.

The buddies, longtime Echo Park residents, work in construction. But when there’s nothing to hammer, they saw away the hours at the barber shop, where they greet customers and help Rios with whatever she needs. Painting. Sweeping. Curbing the trash bins.


“It’s family here,” said Alvarez, who gets free haircuts — as does Torres — in return for pitching in.

But can a small-town family operation survive the changes that keep coming to Echo Park?

Neighborhoods across the city have been hit by waves of gentrification, swamping longtime businesses and residents of modest means. But few places have seen more demographic change than Echo Park, the once heavily Latino district that has become synonymous with soaring real estate prices and that special brand of tattooed, locally sourced L.A. trendiness.

Three weeks ago, a slick, sprawling, modern barber shop opened up in the old Crown Shoes storefront. It’s just around the corner from Echo Barber Shop, which has been in business for a quarter of a century. Rios inherited the business when her father retired several years ago after teaching her how to handle a pair of scissors.

The tiny Rios shop has one barber chair; the new American Barber Shop has 16. Echo Barber Shop has a lottery ticket clipped to a Lady of Guadalupe holy card for good luck; the American Barber Shop has a moose head mounted on the wall. It also has pretty loud music, and the barbers wear white shirts and neckties.

“It’s proper barber attire,” said the manager, George Mendoza, who doesn’t consider himself to be in competition with the old-school shop around the corner.

By the way, I asked Mendoza what would be going into the new space just up the street. Coffee and yoga, he said. Maybe they should call it Lotus and Latte.

Mendoza said he twice dropped in to talk to Rios because he wants to be a good neighbor. He said he believes that with her low overhead, “her shop is going to be here for a hundred years,” while he tries to hustle up enough of a clientele to cover his bills.

A haircut at American costs $25, more than three times what Rios was charging. She raised her price from $8 to $10 a month ago, when her rent went up about $200 a month, but the slight fee increase doesn’t appear to have scared customers away. David Olsen, chairman of the communications department at Cal State L.A., is a regular customer who insisted you couldn’t tell the difference between an $80 haircut and Rios’ $8 haircuts, except that hers look slightly better.

“Sometimes the line is up to there,” said Alvarez, pointing to the steps that climb above the shop to one of the second-floor apartments.

“There she is,” Torres said when he saw Rios walking toward the shop. The men rushed to help her carry some supplies, and the first customers were soon waiting their turn.

Latino, white, Asian, old, young. It used to be all Latino, said Cecilia, but now she gets a little of everything. Joseph Kim, a young banker, said he sees no reason to go to any other barber.

“I like Cecilia,” he said. “I know her and I’ve gotten to know her family, and it’s all about comfort, isn’t it? When you come here, it feels comfortable.”

Rios said she feels sorry for the victims of gentrification in Echo Park, and she knows lots of people who were forced to move out. Mario Espinoza, a customer who dropped by Tuesday, complained that he might be next. The rent on his studio apartment just went up to $1,000, and he can’t afford that on his Social Security check, can’t find work at age 70 and doesn’t know where he’ll end up.

But Rios said she’s used to change. And therein lies the real story, which is not about a barber shop but about survival.

Rios said that when she was a young child in Mexico, her father moved north to work in the bracero program. The rest of the family stayed behind in a home without electricity or running water, and they survived partly because of the generosity of Americans.

“They came down from a church in El Paso,” said Rios. “On Tuesdays they gave us food. On Wednesdays they gave us healthcare. On Fridays they said Mass.”

Her appendix ruptured when she was a child, said Rios, and the people from the north rushed her to a hospital and helped pay for the cost of surgery.

“They saved my life,” she said. “I learned from Americans how to be kind.”

When she and the rest of the family moved north, and ultimately became U.S. citizens, Rios’ father had a barbershop in the Pico-Union area. The family lived in an apartment upstairs, and they lost both the business and their home to a blaze that started during the 1992 riots.

“We were homeless for about eight months, living in a van,” said Rios.

The family finally settled in Alhambra, where her father opened another barber shop. But they lost that, too, when a car plowed into the building. That’s when they made the move to Echo Park. Rios and her husband — who sells clothing out of his car — now live in Silver Lake, where they have raised four children in a one-bedroom apartment.

Their eldest daughter, who wants to be a police officer, has moved on. The three younger children — one of whom goes to a Catholic high school on a scholarship, speaks three languages and wants to be a doctor — sleep on living room couches.

All week long, Rios collects clothing. Customers at the barber shop appreciate how little she charges for a haircut, and they sometimes offer big tips or donate clothing. Her loyal assistants, Alvarez and Torres, retrieve abandoned clothes at the laundromat across the street and bag it. The clothes pile up in the barber shop until Rios finds someone in the neighborhood who needs a handout. On Sundays, she and the kids stuff the clothes into suitcases and take a bus to Tijuana, where they donate the goods to a church and an orphanage.

If the Virgin mother comes through and she wins the lottery, Rios said, all the money will go to charities.

“Money is not everything in life,” she said. “We have our place, we have our health, I have this.”

And so far, as the neighborhood changes and the competition closes in, the customers keep coming.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


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