It was a rainy Monday morning when we decided to head to Bosphorus Hair Salon in Sheepshead Bay. The station was busy with men in suits and ties and students waiting for the Manhattan-bound train. The barber shop was nestled along Sheepshead Bay Road between a Chase bank and a Russian gourmet market. Inside the shop were four barbers, each busy with their own customer. Mirrors lined the walls, and there was a reclining chair for head washes towards the back of the store. Only two things could be heard: the sounds of scissors cutting away at hair and the soft chants coming from a distant television, tuned to a soccer match. Two customers were lined up, waiting to get their hair cut by the store owner and head barber, Ali Ayaz. We had planned a meeting with Ali, so when we walked in he recognized us and warmly asked us to take a seat.

Ali Ayaz is the owner of Bosphorus Hair Salon and has been the owner for three years, but has owned another hair salon two blocks down for six years. From our conversations and from the way he carried himself with his customers, it was clear that Ali knew the neighborhood well and continuously adapted his business to accommodate the needs of his customers.

Although Ali has a deep understanding of the community he serves, he is not a New York native. He was born in the small city of Sivas in Turkey, moved to Istanbul before migrating to the United States in 2001. Upon his arrival, he worked for a brief time in Delaware (his brother lived there). Later, he settled himself in New York City. Ali’s unique attitude is displayed in his reflection upon moving to New York. According to him, he had an smooth and easy adjustment to New York City lifestyle, and he has found his place in Sheepshead Bay. Of course, Ali recognizes that his first few weeks were difficult, but he focuses on the positive aspects of living in America as an immigrant. Like many immigrants, Ali was willing to leave his home and take a risk for the benefit of his children; Ali said that he “wanted to raise his kids in the United States.” He started working three weeks after he came to America, “under someone else for a long time.” (for ten years, he later clarifies.) He was finally able to open his own shop in 2011, and has been managing the business ever since.

Bosphorus Hair Salon (Credit: Ahmet Doymaz)

Adapting in Sheepshead Bay

Bosphorus Hair Salon’s success in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood largely has to do with the willingness and thoughtfulness of Ali to adapt to the challenges his business faces. Although Ali never received a college education, he has a keen business sense and recognized a gap in what his target customers in the neighborhood wanted, and what was available to them. Most hair salons in the neighborhood are unisex, as opposed to the “buzz-cut” places that only serve men. Therefore, according to Ali, men in the neighborhood did not have an option to get a good haircut; it was either cheaper establishments that offered inexpensive haircuts but paid no attention to the customer experience, or hair salons that catered primarily to women. The latter option deterred men in the neighborhood because of the hair salons’ focus on female customers, which Ali believes felt emasculating to men in the neighborhood (haircuts in these salons also had a higher price point than haircuts in barber shops). Ali recognized that his potential male customers in the neighborhood wanted to get a nice haircut from a clean place that offered them an enjoyable experience, while also remaining relatively inexpensive.

Knowing this, Ali opened a barber shop that offered this combination—a high quality experience for a reasonable price. His barber shop is a little more expensive than other barber shops in the area (his shop charges twenty dollars for a haircut, while others charge around seventeen), but Bosphorus offers a good haircut in a clean place that caters to men. The shop also offers hair washing services if customers prefer it, and every barber in the barber shop keeps his station exceptionally clean. The idea behind Ali’s barber shop was that it is a place where his customers do not mind sitting in the waiting room, because they are waiting in a clean environment and a high-end salon. Through his insights, Ali has found a specific niche in the neighborhood and developed loyal customers that travel to get to his barber shop.

Ali’s barber shop is located in one of the most important enclaves of Russians and Ukrainians in New York City, Sheepshead Bay. The neighborhood has remained a space for independent storefronts of ethnic markets and restaurants to thrive and form a community. In the 1980s, the neighborhood was a refuge for Jewish immigrants looking to escape the human rights violations they had faced in the Soviet Union. These immigrants slowly adapted to life in Brooklyn, participating in community events and transforming the cultural landscape of Sheepshead Bay’s waterfront. A multitude of mom-and-pop shops have since thrived in the area, occupying the niche of stores providing traditional Russian and Ukrainian products. Nargis Café, an Uzbek restaurant nearby Ali’s store, continues to be a popular location for Russian customers looking for blend of Middle Eastern and Slavic. The recent arrival of Asian, Uzbek, and Pakistani immigrants is “adding new life,” according to Brooklyn borough historian, Ron Schweiger. Ali’s arrival in Brooklyn and the startup of his barber shop definitely play a significant part in this period of cultural shift.

Ali prides himself on being aware of the shifts in the community and adjusting accordingly. With the neighborhood in mind, Ali adapted his business by hiring two Russian-speaking barbers. Ali recognized that many of his customers do not speak English fluently, but they still want to come to the barber shop and be able to clearly communicate their haircut needs. Although the decision may seem obvious to some, many of Ali’s competitors do not actively accommodate the ‘other’ within the community. However, Ali’s barbershop is designed for everyone in the community, not just Russians or just Uzbeks.

Since style is everything for a barber, offering a service to a diverse community could pose significant challenges to the shop. Ali was not naive when deciding to make an ‘open to all’ barbershop. He explained that Sheepshead Bay is an immigrant enclave that is home to primarily Russians and Ukrainians. Although the countries and cultures are different, the styles he provides and specializes in (those he learned in Turkey) “match with Russian and Ukrainian styles.” In fact, Ali intentionally moved into a Russian community, namely Sheepshead Bay, because he was confident he could adapt his style to the needs of the community, and therefore maintain financial stability.

After talking to Ali, one inquiry that we decided to investigate further was changes in the Russian or Russian speaking population in Sheepshead Bay in recent years. The percentage of foreign born residents living in census tract 606 (the hair salon’s tract), and surrounding tracts ranged from 61-75%, with around 49% of those foreign-born residents having entered the United States between the years 1990 and 1999. A majority of residents living in the neighborhood are immigrants, and more than half have arrived within the past thirty years.

The significant influx of Eastern Europeans from the 1980’s forward fascinated us. Ali moved his business to Sheepshead Bay without investigating the data, as we did; he moved because of his understanding of the community from shorter interactions. Furthermore, Ali’s decisions as a business owner, (hiring two Russian speaking barbers), was motivated by what he saw to be the composition of the neighborhood. While the Russian community has been a part of Sheepshead Bay for a long period of time, there has been a steady intake of immigrants from Russia, Ukrainian immigration rate is now higher than those of any other group. The Ukrainian immigration may have further implications in the next few decades, as the influx of Ukrainian immigrants starts to affect businesses that cater to the neighborhood’s preferences. Ali mentioned that the styles his hair salon offered coincided with styles both Russian and Ukrainian customers want. Once again, Ali is not concerned with these changes because he is prepared to serve the community, even when the population shifts.

Ali has been paying attention to another group of immigrants that have been growing in Sheepshead Bay: Uzbeks. The number of foreign born South Central Asians in the neighborhood has significantly increased, ­making up between 4-12% of the foreign-born population in surrounding census tracts in 2010. An earlier census survey preformed in 2000 shows that the population of South Central Asians was only 1-2% of the total immigrant population. In order to address the needs of the newcomers, Ali has an Uzbek worker in his salon, working as a general helper and a translator. As time goes on, we are sure that Ali will hire an Uzbek barber to cater to the Uzbek customers.

“Of course when you open a business, you must match your business with the neighborhood.” Ali

Ali takes pride in his experience of working in a number of regions and as a result, serving a wide range of customers. According to him, his unique experience helps him serve the diverse community of Sheepshead Bay. One of the reasons he believes his customers prefer his business is because he can improvise and work with his customers in their selection of hair styles, and preferred language. “Many of the barbers around here do not know how to use scissors,” he told us when he described what set him apart from others. His dexterity and experience allow him to recreate most styles his customers show him.

Another adaptation of Ali’s came when he decided to move his shop. Bosphorus Hair Salon relocated three years ago to a location near the Q train subway station. Ali invested in a new better location because he “wanted to expand my business and this location has much more foot traffic, because there is the train here, offices, and doctors—people are on the way to work.” He recognized that many of his customers took the train to come to work nearby, coming from the city. Ali noted that the new location expanded his clientele to businessmen that walk into his store on their way to or from the train. When we asked him if the decision to move his business had an effect on his profits, he smiled and replied with a “Definitely.”

“I wanted to expand my business and this location has much more foot traffic, because there is the train here, offices, and doctors—people are on the way to work.” Ali

Once again, without formal data, Ali demonstrated his savvy business skills by explaining to us his personal collection of data. According to Ali, the calendar can be broken down into sections, “January, February, (business) slows down a little bit, in the spring it goes up, summer a little slower, and after September it speeds up again.” When we asked him why these trends existed, he answered that tax season and the summer holidays were two times in the year where business was very slow. His customers were spending their time and money on other priorities and chose to temporarily save money on haircuts.  It picked back up in the spring and in the fall, when people came back from their breaks and the weather started to change. Ali’s attention to detail demonstrate his intelligence as a business owner and make it clear why he continues to succeed in the community.

Sheepshead Bay, near the water (Credit: Ahmet Doymaz)

Moving  Forward

Unlike other businesses, government regulations do not affect barbers very much.  The only rules that the government requires of Ali’s salon, and those of other barbers, is to place fire extinguishers in every room. Since his barbershop does not have a kitchen, there are no other regulations that pertain to his business. The simplicity of barbershops allows for government trust without significant surveillance. Fortunately, Ali signed a ten-year lease agreement, and he seems to be in a stable financial condition, able to pay his increasing rent (which, according to him, increases at a rate of two-three percent a year). His only concern regarding money is that there is a cap to how much people are willing to pay for a haircut, but the cost for him continue to increase. As a result, his profit margins reduce, but as of now, he is not overly concerned. Ali acknowledges that there are outside factors which contributed to his success, including a reasonable rent, few regulations, and luck. Bosphorus was one of the few businesses that did not have any significant damage from Hurricane Sandy. As soon as there was electricity, Ali was able to open his store for business.

Ali’s ability to think about his customers’ needs and respond to those needs has been a critical factor in his success so far. The neighborhood “has been changing in a positive way,” according to Ali. He has a seemingly positive outlook on the new condominiums being built along the bay, and told us during our interview that “more people will be coming to this neighborhood after they build the new buildings.” However, as the neighborhood continues to evolve, he may need to respond to new challenges. Even though more residents are coming into Sheepshead Bay, many complain that instead of moving slowly away from the seafront, the city government is encouraging the building of high-density apartments near the water. As seen during Hurricane Sandy and other large storms, this kind of thinking may lead to disastrous consequences for the community. These newer condos do not seem to have much to offer to current residents, either. The neighborhood was struggling in the late 2000’s with the economic downturn, giving residential building owners a hard time to adjust. Residents have complained that the new buildings along the water and near the station do not have the amenities that most other building projects for a similar price in the city have, like pools or parks. As the population of neighborhood continues to change and grow, the composition of the businesses in the area will also start to change. To-date, Ali’s barber shop has been competing with other small businesses, not larger chain businesses. What will happen when his barber shop’s rent increases, current residents leave, some businesses close, and more high-end stores open up in the neighborhood? While many businesses like Ali’s believe an influx of people will increase foot traffic and generate more business, independently owned restaurants like El Greco Diner have been displaced in recent years. Will Ali’s barber shop be able to survive new levels of competition, or will he have to radically change his approach and perhaps his target customer base? If he does so, what will happen to the loyal customers he has built over time?

"Best advice is to, whatever you do, you have to think like a customer. What would you expect from a business, what makes life easier for the customer?"

These are the questions that Ali will face in the near future.  Although he is perceptive and aware of small details, customer needs, and changing environments, Ali needs to consider his investment in the business long-term and what the future potential challenges might be—and his ability to continue to adapt will impact the ability of his barber shop to survive. We hope that Ali continuously finds new ways to profit while providing an exceptional service for his customers. It seems that for the time being business for Ali is going incredibly well, which was evident with the line of people waiting to get their hair cut on a Monday morning. We enjoyed our time together with Ali, and wish that, moving forward, all will continue to go well for him and Bosphorus Hair Salon.


Barkan, R. (2016, September 16). Transformation on Brooklyn’s Southern Shore. The New York Times. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

Mooney, J. (2011, May 21). Calm and Clamor, in Equal Measure. The New York Times. Retrieved May 01, 2017.

Orleck, A. (1999). Soviet Jewish Americans (The New Americans). Greenwood Publishing Group.

U.S. Census Bureau. “Total Population: Foreign Born, 2000.” Social Explorer.

U.S. Census Bureau. “Total Population: Foreign Born, 2010.” Social Explorer.

U.S. Census Bureau. “Total Population: Foreign Born, South Central Asians, 2000.” Social Explorer.

U.S. Census Bureau. “Total Population: Foreign Born, South Central Asians, 2010.” Social Explorer.

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