Hair stylist Alex Murdakhayev always had but one dream — to be the owner of a hair salon. But that was an impossibility in the Soviet Union, because prior to 1991, all businesses were government-owned. People who worked for them, like Alex and his parents, Yriw and Maria, had to adhere to strict rules. “If you charged one penny more or less than what the government said you could charge, you could go to jail,” he said snipping away at Griffen Farrell’s hair at Johnny’s Barber Shop in Oyster Bay, which he now owns. “Once the Soviet Union was separated, we got our freedom and could make a better living. People took care of their businesses once they belonged to them.” But even then, owning a business wasn’t anywhere near as lucrative as it could be in the United States.
Murdakhayev, 46, who was born in Uzbekistan, came from a family of hair stylists. As a child he would watch his parents at work. Fascinated by the wide variety of hairstyles, he said he was impressed by the way his parents were able to make people happy by altering their appearance with the snip of a pair of scissors, the buzz of clippers or an application of henna. He learned everything he needed to know from his parents, who are now retired. That’s common in his line of work, he said, because no one in Russia goes to school to become a hair stylist.
Sitting in a barber chair, Griffen, who lives in Oyster Bay, looked in the mirror and smiled. “He’s a really good barber,” he said. “And I like the place here — it’s mellow.”
Encouraged, Murdakhayev held a mirror behind Griffen to point out to the teenager, a first-time customer, how the cut was straight in the back. “I’m an old-fashioned barber,” Murdakhayev said, adding that he hoped Griffen was pleased.
The Murdakhayev family moved to Rego Park, Queens in 1995 as refugees, where life was hard. His parents worked long hours in a bakery, and Alex sold hot dogs from a cart on the streets of Manhattan. He also handed out fliers.
He had worked as a hair stylist for two years in Russia and his parents had years of experience, but not knowing the language and having the status of refugees made it difficult to find employment in a salon.
Five years passed, the amount of time immigrants must wait before applying for citizenship. In 1999 the Murdakhayevs became U.S. citizens, now granted the opportunity to lease Panino’s Barber Shop, on Water Street in Manhattan’s Wall Street area. Business was good. “It was the same procedure to cut hair,” Murdakhayev said, “but we had to learn the language and the different tools used in America. My shop was a 10- minute walk from the World Trade Center.”
He was on vacation in Cancun with his wife, Luba, and two daughters, Sharon and Evelin, on Sept. 11, 2001. Another vacationing Russian told him about the terrorist attacks, which Murdakhayev didn’t believe. “We saw it on the television in our hotel room,” he said. “I was worried about my dad, who I had left in charge of the business, and my customers. I tried to call my dad, but I couldn’t get through.”
When he did speak to his father a couple of days later, Yriw told Alex that he had been standing outside when the first tower collapsed. “He said my hair salon was shaking,” Alex recounted. “The products in the front window all fell down. When my dad saw a ball of smoke coming, he ran inside the shop and saw it pass through.”
Returning from Cancun, Murdakhayev could not get to his shop because the area was closed off. A month later, he reopened, and he continued to work there for four years. He stayed in the Wall Street area for another five years, leaving Panino’s to work at Salavador’s Barber Shop at One New York Plaza. His parents retired.
He did well at his new job, but the years of commuting from Queens was becoming tiresome for Murdakhayev.
In 2010 he got a job at Ritchie’s Barber Shop in East Norwich. Everything was different about the job, and it was all good. He could drive to work from his Queens home, the haircuts prices were less expensive than in Manhattan and the customers were different. “At the East Norwich barbershop the customers knew each other,” he said. “It was more like a community. And we never got kids on Wall Street. I like giving haircuts to kids. I like to talk to them, show them a few magic tricks, give them a lollipop.”
While working in East Norwich, he saved his money to open his own shop. Johnny’s Barber Shop, at 15 E. Main St. in Oyster Bay, opened in September 2017.
“I named my shop after my son, who is 6,” he said, because Johnny insisted he do so. “I said to him, ‘The customers will call me Johnny, not Alex.’ But he told me there are many men named Alex in America, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone forgetting my name.”
Murdakhayev continued to doubt his son’s suggestion, but Johnny said that if his father was worried people wouldn’t know his name, he could put it on the mirror in front of his barber chair, which Alex did. “Then he told me he wanted a haircut at his business,” Murdakhayev said with a smile. “Since the shop is named after him, he thinks this is his business.”
Murdakhayev said that becoming citizens was important to his family. His children, Sharon, 20, Evelin, 17, and Johnny were all born in America. “I’m very happy to be an American,” he said, adding that life here is completely different. There is so much to like. “Here there is democracy and freedom of speech. In Russia everything was connections.”
He paused to look around his shop and then at the traffic outside. “Money talked,” he said, “and everything was under the table.”
There is a warmth, a feeling of welcome at Johnny’s Barber Shop. A miniature car is positioned in the window for the children’s enjoyment, and lively music plays throughout the shop. Racks are filled with of hair care products. Johnny’s is like many barbershops in America, but they don’t include Alex Murdakhayev.
Asked what he likes about being a barber. he said that that hasn’t changed from when he was a Russian. “I like to be with people, to talk to them,” he said. “And this work is creative, which I enjoy, too.”
Rosario Gambino, who owns Gambino’s Italian Trattoria and Bakery a few stores down from Johnny’s, said he was happy that a professional is available to cut his hair. “He’s a very good barber,” Gambino said, pausing from transferring a few pastries into a glass case. “He does hair the way I like it, and he is experienced. There aren’t that many barbers like that anymore.”