By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for The Buzz Cafe
Valdo Leon first started barbering as a child when he cut his uncle’s hair in exchange for being allowed to take over the kitchen on Sundays. It’s been more than thirty years, but he finally realized his dream of having his own shop when Valdo’s Barbershop opened on September 21 at 128 Harrison Street in the Oak Park Arts District.
As a boy growing up in Humboldt Park, Valdo loved to experiment in the kitchen. “My dad’s older brother lived upstairs from us with my grandmother and when she would go off to church on Sundays, he would call me up and let me make my mess in the kitchen as long as I cut his hair in return. I had no experience, but Tío George would guide me, and I soon learned I had a passion for cutting hair.”
When Valdo was twelve, his parents decided to move the family to Puerto Rico. “The early nineties weren’t the best time to be a preteen in Chicago. My whole life changed when we moved. I went from being a city kid to living in a very rural part of the island.” Valdo continued cutting hair in Puerto Rico as a teenager. “I had the tools and I needed lunch money,” he says with a laugh. He started with his friends, his cousins, and his older brother. He would pay attention to the barber’s technique when he got his own hair cut. “I was intrigued because I wanted to get to that point myself, but there were a lot of disastrous haircuts first.”
After graduating high school, Valdo joined the military and spent several years in the National Guard. But through it all he continued to rely on barbering. “If things were tight, I had my clippers. I could make an easy $100 in a day.” Eventually, he made his way back to Chicago where he impressed the owner of the biggest barbershop on the Paseo Boricua—the “Puerto Rican Promenade” on Division Street in Chicago. “The owner loved that I was fully bilingual and that I had very fast hands. It was an assembly line barbershop and I was very efficient.” Valdo worked there for seven years until he left to complete his accredited hours and earn his professional license.
Valdo was happily working as a barber when he got a call from UPS in 2015 in response to an earlier application. He and his wife were newlyweds and the benefits that came with being a driver were a perk that he couldn’t resist. “UPS pulled me away from barbering. I hung up my clippers for 2½ years.” A car accident in 2017 and the resulting lower spine injuries were the end of his UPS career. “I couldn’t do that type of job anymore.”
Back to barbering, Valdo took his clippers to a few different shops until he finally landed on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park just five minutes from his home in Austin. When he first arrived in Chicago from Puerto Rico in 2005, Valdo had told some friends that when he opened his own barbershop someday it was going to be in Oak Park. And when he got behind the chair on Chicago Avenue, he thought, “This is my way in.”
Fixated on opening his own barbershop, Valdo took his wife’s advice and drove down Harrison Street one day after dropping his son off at school. “I started seeing multiple storefronts that were available and checked out each one to see what would best accommodate my needs. I hit 128 and thought, ‘This is it.’” When asked why he opened a barbershop at this time, Valdo answers, “Why not? Yes, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, but life continues. Life has to continue.”
Although the current Tier 3 mitigations have limited the services that he can provide, Valdo is encouraged that most of his clients have stuck with him since the spring. “We can’t offer hot shaves, beard trims, or facials right now which takes away from the luxury of the experience. The upside is that it has created more space for haircuts.”
Valdo is known for his versatility and can manage anything from a basic gentleman’s cut to the tightest fade and graphics. And while many people tend to forget that esthetics are taught in barber school, Valdo believes that it’s time to highlight those services. “We’re losing that essence in modern barbering. People get caught up in being a chop shop. There are very few barbershops that offer pampering services.”
Although he’s only been established on Harrison Street for a few months, Valdo is overwhelmed by the support that he’s gotten. The classic look of the barbershop has gotten a good response and Valdo gives all the credit for that to his wife Rebecca. “She has really good taste and a keen eye. We’ve been together a long time and she knew what I wanted.”
Looking back at the thirty years he’s been barbering, Valdo says, “Cutting hair was shown to me at a very early age and it’s something that I have always fallen back on. Not only do I enjoy barbering, but I enjoy the interactions with people. This is my purpose. It’s what I was meant to do.”
Valdo’s Barbershop is located at 128 Harrison Street and is open Monday through Friday from 9am-7pm and Saturdays from 8am-5pm. To book an appointment, call the shop at 708-628-3025 or visit www.booksy.com.