For 25 years, the Old First Ward didn’t have a barbershop, but that all changed when Ronny Rocklin decided to open one.
“Guys like me don’t end up as entrepreneurs,” Rocklin said. “We end up either staying in jail or being on drugs or alcohol. Not too many of us come out and do the right thing.”
Rock Boyz Barbershop, a name given in tribute to Rocklin’s brothers and their streetwise upbringing, inhabits the old Tricia’s Corner on Hamburg Street and O’Connell Avenue. The building wears its age in peeling paint streaks on a side entrance door, but from the street, the building flashes a new face of bright white paint the color of the snow piles pebbling the curb in front of it.
The area, for the most part, is free from disturbance. A car or two rolls down an otherwise sleepy street, slicing the quiet tension between neighborhood industry and residential homes. Further down the street sits the Irishman’s mainstay, Gene McCarthy’s, and across the way, the brewery and event space Lakeward Spirits.
Prior to moving in, Rocklin said the building was abandoned for about 22 years, making the location desirable.
"I wanted to be home. I just always liked the whole barbershop feel,” he said. “I could’ve opened up a shop anywhere in the city, and wouldn’t have had to rip walls out and all of that, but this is where I wanted to be.”
Rocklin spent the next two years--and $15,000 of his own money--on renovating the inside of the abandoned storefront so that it was brought up to code in time for the grand opening.
Rock Boyz opened for business this past December, and the first person to sit in the barber chair was Rocklin’s 99-year-old grandfather, a lifelong resident of the Old First Ward. It felt right to have his grandfather, a preservationist of the Ward’s Italian heritage, christen the shop with the first haircut.
“It’s amazing how my grandfather has lived in the same house since 1922 and is still in the same house now,” Rocklin, a former factory worker at Honeywell in Buffalo, said.
These are the kinds of people who come through the barbershop’s doors: people who have not forgotten the stories. People who don’t know each other, but know of each other. People who are two doorsteps and one distant relative away.
The old framed photographs on Rocklin’s shop walls of former Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin from the 1980s and Adolf’s Tavern in the 1920s also show the close connections of the community he serves.
The barber’s enterprising spirit is fostered by a sense of belonging and a loyalty without expectation. He owes his community something better than the memory of a nefarious past. Rocklin served three years in prison for attempted assault in his late teens and early twenties, and has since come out clean on the other side.
“I wouldn’t change [my experiences] for the world, to be honest with you. It taught me so many great lessons. I wouldn’t be half the man I am or half the father I am if it didn’t happen...it’s part of my story, it’s part of who I am,” Rocklin said.
With the Pegula Sports takeover of the Buffalo Sabres and the development of the waterfront, including Canalside and HarborCenter, Rockland sees the opportunity in investing in areas like the Ward and South Buffalo, two separate places with two separate histories.
“The Ward is separate from South Buffalo. South Buffalo was the place that people, years ago, when they got money or got good jobs…moved to so their kids had a better life,” Rocklin, a single father of a 17-year-old son, said. “I would say the Ward's got a little more street to it."
Hence the meaning behind the Rock Boyz name. There are times when Rocklin has two cops sitting in the seating area for their shaves, and there are times when he has three ex-criminals sitting right next to those two cops. Everyone, according to Rocklin, is treated the same: with respect.
There are also times when his neighbor, Judy, pops in and makes sure he’s doing OK, because she feels safe with Rocklin’s presence in the neighborhood.
“I got to make sure he’s fed,” she said after sticking her hand urgently through the front door to hand Rocklin a bag with food in it.
Then there are those humble working-class folk like Ken Margarucci of Lovejoy, who cross the bridge between the Ward and South Buffalo to receive the neighborly Rock Boyz treatment.
“I have the same thing in Lovejoy. You have to go down the bridge to get to the East Side...I mean, it’s a little segregated,” Margarucci said when asked about the changing social climate enveloping the Ward, South Buffalo, and the new neighborhood industry pouring in.
But at Rock Boyz, everyone is a part of the intimate exchange that happens only in barbershop environments. And although the prospect of cutting hair for some of Buffalo’s finest athletes, should that day ever come, is enticing, Rocklin said that he’s just as happy providing his neighbors with a $16 cut or a $32 cut and shave with a free cup of coffee.
"Whether you’re a world-class athlete or a bum on the street, you'll always get the same treatment,” he said while picking up a pair of shiny, maroon-colored Oster brand clippers to finish Margarucci’s cut.
Oftentimes, your neighbors are your harshest critics, but pushback doesn’t bother Rocklin.
“A lot of people are finally coming back down here and saying, ‘Hey, this is great,’ but to people like me, this place has always been beautiful,” Rocklin said. “Even at its worst, it’s always been beautiful.”