Cypriot barber Vangelos Georgiou has been cutting hair on Bermondsey Street for nearly half a century, but as the city evolves he may have to move on.
‘I remember the day I moved into this shop. It was November 16 1970, I was 24, and I took the place over from a barber who’d been here 42 years. My rent in those days was only £6 a week. Now it’s nearly £250 – plus I need another £80 a week to cover all the expenses. This week I’ve barely taken enough for the rent. I haven’t always lived round here. I grew up in Cyprus when it was a British colony, so I arrived in London with a British passport. I was only 15 at the time, but I had two brothers and a sister here, and London seemed exciting. So I got on a ship – it took about three days.
I’d worked in a barbershop in Cyprus, because my father had seven children and couldn’t afford to send me to high school, so I had all the skills already. Hairstyles haven’t changed much over the years. Short back and sides has always been popular, as well as the ‘college boy’ with a side parting. Some youngsters now have short hair and do a line in it with the clippers – my grandson has that haircut. There are a lot of people who shave their heads and don’t even go to the barbers; they go to Argos for some clippers and do it at home. But apart from people’s hair, a lot has changed since I moved in.
Bermondsey is a busy place now with all the pubs and restaurants. In the ’70s we were scared to go out at night and there were a lot of break-ins. I’ve been broken into six times, but now the street is so busy, I doubt they’d try. There used to be lots of factories around here – chocolate, vinegar, cork, steel – and all the workers would come to me, so I made a good living. There was a printing company next door and a joke shop and watch repairs on the other side, all owned by twin brothers called Frank and Percy. My neighbours now are okay: I’ve had some complimentary pizzas from Franco Manca next door – but I’m not a big pizza fan. I like Greek restaurants. There are a few in Camden Town, and there’s a nice taverna in Camberwell called Vineyard that we go to for birthdays.
Now the factories are gone, it’s all luxury flats. The people who live in them go off to work and have their hair cut near their offices. I don’t have a phone or a website because it’s expensive, but customers talk, there are walk-ins, and I think I’m listed on the internet. I still have about half a dozen regulars who’ve been coming for a long time. They’re old boys, so I don’t charge them full price.
If I have to close the shop, I’ll probably be forced to retire because I might not be able to get another job at my age. I just need to decide whether or not to carry on working for a bit longer without earning any money. Apparently there’s a new barbershop opening further up the street, but I don’t see how they’re going to manage. I’m lucky if I get ten customers in a week. Everybody’s gone now.’
Visit George at 126 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3TX.
Update: George now has a website! Pay him a visit at www.bermondseybarber.co.uk.