Inside the Aquarius Barber Shop

Inside the Aquarius Barber Shop
By Andrew Dudley - Published on February 23, 2012.
What with February being Black History Month, we thought this was the perfect time to profile one of the Lower Haight's oldest black-owned businesses, the Aquarius Barber Shop.

William "Mac" McElroy isn't the easiest man to interview. He asked not to be photographed for this article, and initially wasn't overly forthcoming with information. But at 80 years old, and having been in business in the neighborhood for more than four decades, he has more than his fair share of stories to tell. "I've seen the beatniks, the hippies, the skinheads, the yuppies, the gays," Mac says about the city's changing population over the decades. "The thing about San Francisco is, it always evolves. It never remains the same." Mac attended barber college in the 1950s. Back then, this area of the city was inhabited primarily by white residents. But with the post-war boom, things began to change. "A transition took place in the 1950s," he recalls. "Whites moved out to the suburbs, and blacks moved in." By the late 1960s, the demographics of the area known as the Haight-Fillmore had changed. "It was predominantly black by that time," Mac recalls. It seemed as good an area as any for Mac to embark on a transition of his own. With several years of barbershop experience under his belt, Mac decided to start his own shop. He found a suitable space -- a former delicatessen at 505 Haight Street -- and in 1969 he opened Aquarius, named after his wife's zodiac sign.
His customer base in those early days was largely African American, something that has moderated over the years as whites returned to the neighborhood, although many of his regulars are residents who have been coming to the shop since it opened. "I got people who have been here ever since I started barbering." The barbershop itself has also remained markedly unchanged over the years. There are antique barber chairs, a few personal items and photographs, a couple of plants. On one wall is a decades-old illustration of men's beard styles: "The Modern Abe Lincoln," "The Short Mutton Chop," "The Long Van Dyke."
The shop's consistency over the years was disrupted exactly once, Mac recalls. It was a day in early 2008, when Milk was being filmed at locations throughout the city. The movie's scouts chose Aquarius for a scene in which Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) visits a barber shop. Mac was recruited to play a barber in the scene, and even had some lines of dialogue, receiving a credit for his role in the film. Here's a photo of Penn at the shop's entrance, with director Gus Van Sant at his side: That one day of excitement aside, things at the shop have remained remarkably steady. It's a place that seems blissfully unaware of the modern-day minutiae of murals and parklets and Beer Weeks and Art Walks being discussed outside. And Mac admits as much. He doesn't live in the neighborhood, but arrives around 7:30am to open the shop, and closes up around 3:30 or 4pm. He doesn't interact much with the shop's adjacent neighbors, and he prefers it that way. "I mind my own business," he says.
When asked about plans for the future, Mac doesn't concede to having any. He expects to keep operating the shop as long as he's able. We asked if, after all these years and with all the neighborhood's changes, he's glad he established his shop where he did. "Of course," Mac replies. "It's been good to me."

Thanks to Mac for spending some time with us. To learn more about Mac and the Aquarius Barber Shop, pop into 505 Haight and say hello. Just don't bother him if he's busy, and don't be offended if he doesn't have much to say. He's a man of few words.