The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY)
A CUT ABOVE THE REST
Best friends to open barbershop in childhood neighborhood
The abandoned building at 44 Jefferson St., a former grocery store, is undergoing a transformation at the hands of two young men who grew up in the neighborhood and have now returned to open a barbershop there. Transformation has touched this pair of best friends as well, as they worked hard from childhood to help support their families, go to college and become entrepreneurs.
Lamont Washington, 26, and Casey James, 23, both of Saratoga Springs, have been working on the future barbershop, to be called True Cutz, since February. Refurbished walls, a new floor, a lot of cleaning and fresh paint are slowly turning the building, empty for four years, into their business.
“We had a vision,” James said. “We wanted to make this place look amazing.”
He and Washington plan to start out with four barber chairs and add two in the summer, when track season begins.
“We want to bring a better character to the neighborhood,” Washington said.
Washington was born in Queens, and James in Watertown. The two met when they moved to Saratoga Springs and were in elementary school — Washington attended Caroline Street and James went to Division Street — and they have been best friends ever since. Washington grew up at Jefferson Terrace, which he calls a hard struggle.
“I grew up really poor,” he said. “My mother was a single mom, and I had three younger brothers. Sometimes we just didn’t eat.”
A friend who was in and out of jail nevertheless bought the family groceries when he could.
Washington and his family also faced the tragedy of his younger sister dying of cancer at age 10.
James’s father was in the Army, so the family moved often when James was young.
“I was like a nomad,” James said. “Then my parents broke
up, and I landed here. My mother became a single mom. I’m the youngest of three.”
His grandfather became a close part of his upbringing, giving him good values.
Despite having close friends who used drugs, went to jail and continued to struggle in the low-income neighborhood, James and Washington worked hard to stay clear of trouble. They dedicated themselves to their families, education and jobs.
“I’ve seen a lot of people growing up in the Terraces, doing drugs, going the wrong way,” Washington said. “Casey and I went the right way to get a good life. Our peers are really proud of us, no matter what they chose.”
Washington joined the wrestling team at Saratoga Springs High School. When he graduated, he became the first in his family to reach that goal. Through loans, he was able to attend the New York State University at Brockport, where he majored in marketing.
Meanwhile, James went to college for business. Afterward, he worked three jobs at once.
“I wanted a better life, too,” he said. “I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck.”
During college and after, Washington cut hair. He can do designs, face shaves and full towel shaves.
“I started out at my fraternity in college,” he said. “Then the owner of a barbershop at college trained me, and I worked there during school. Now I’m cutting hair out of my home.”
When he and James met up again in Saratoga, they became business partners, creating a online marketing company called LCP Promotions (for Lamont Casey Parties). They have been in business a year and a half, promoting all kinds of local musicians, models, actors and artists, and putting on shows.
“Our latest one was county,” James said.
Washington found himself driving past the abandoned building at 44 Jefferson every day. He started to create a vision wrapped around the old grocery store and his haircutting work.
“I’ve found our next venture,” he told his best friend.
They wrote a business plan; then had to raise the money. So they started a grass-roots campaign that brought them heartwarming support.
“We talked to the parents of some of our school friends,” Washington said. “We have a huge variety of friends, some rich, some poor. A lot of them came from well-to-do families, and their parents were great about lending us the money we needed to start our business. One person who gave us a loan actually owns a mansion.”
He and James formed a limited liability company and got their business license. The partners hadn’t originally known they needed to request a variance from the zoning board of appeals (ZBA), but they appeared before the board, application in hand, when they found out.
“The variance almost stopped us,” Washington said. “The application costs $1,000. We had to scrape that money together.”
The proposed barbershop requires a use variance. Applicants need a use variance when the building’s intended purpose will violate the zoning ordinances; for example, a use variance would be required to build an office building in a residential neighborhood. Use variances are much harder to obtain than area variances.
At the ZBA’s April 11 meeting, when TrueCutz was on the agenda, member James Helicke said the board sees probably only a few such requests each year.
Despite that, the ZBA expressed appreciation of the two young men and their plan for the barbershop.
“I am really happy to see this happen to this piece of property,” said member Susan Steer.
Washington is happy to show the hard work he and James have done so far.
“I’m proud of my best friend and myself,” Washington said.
James said, “We’re doing good for the city of Saratoga.”
The pair hopes to open TrueCutz May 6. But that isn’t the end of their dreams. Casey wants to buy, renovate and sell houses with Washington: “flipping,” as reality television terms it. Washington is interested in developing products for the barbershop.
Besides continuing to help out their families, both young men have new ties. They each have a girlfriend, and Washington has a three-year-old son from a previous relationship.
“I want to be a success,” Washington said. “And I want my son to have a real childhood, not to have to be like an adult man at an early age, as I did.”
James said, “We have to stay focused on our goals. And we’re thankful to all the people who’ve helped us, and to God.”
“There are so many people backing us,” Washington said.
The friends balance each other, with Washington being the more intense and stressed, and James being the more relaxed and easygoing.
“Casey is good when I’m stressed out,” Washington said. “He doesn’t always see the gravity of a situation like I do. He’s great at reassuring me.”
James said, smiling, “I’m 23. I should be out there partying all the time at my age. But I have more to offer the city.”
“We saw the life we wanted,” Washington said. “We saw the work we had to do. So I want to work hard now and then relax in my 40s.”