Las Vegas barbershop pays tribute to grandfather, classic times

Speakeasy Barbershop LV at the El Cortez isn’t just a business. It’s a time machine.

For that, thank the two-chair shop’s decor, heavy on an old Vegas vibe, its menu of services, which includes such classics as hot towel, straight-razor shaves and facials — and most of all, owner Andres Dominguez and his grandfather.

Dominguez’s grandfather, Julian Madrid, ran the tiny shop at the end of a second-floor hallway for more than 30 years. As a kid, every few weeks, Dominguez would spend the day there while his grandfather worked, sweeping up after customers, bonding with his grandfather and getting a glimpse into a world that, at the time, seemed downright exotic.

Dominguez took over the shop in December. Speakeasy Barbershop LV has been open officially for two weeks now, and Dominguez sees every cut and every shave he does as a tribute to his grandfather, who passed away in 2010.

Dominguez, 26, is gregarious and friendly, open and talkative, the kind of guy you’d look forward to seeing every few weeks when the mane becomes a bit too shaggy.

“I’m a talker,” he says. “I love talking to people, I love learning about them and I love sharing experiences, and I don’t care what your background is, I don’t care where you’re from or your political views.”

He motions toward a bottle of water on a table and laughs. “And if no one’s around me, I’m talking to that bottle of water.”

A handshake and a blessing

Julian Madrid started at the El Cortez barbershop in 1974. As the story goes, Madrid’s deal with then-owner Jackie Gaughan was predicated on nothing more than a handshake and Gaughan’s blessing to “go out and make a million.”

Dominguez figures he was about 5 when he started spending days there with his grandfather.

“Grandpa used to pay me $2 to cut my hair,” Dominguez recalls, laughing. “So I was a great businessman from the beginning.”

As Madrid’s first-born grandchild, “I was really close with my grandpa,” Dominguez says. “I’d sweep the floors — but at that age you’re not cleaning anything at all — and at the end of the day, grandpa would check my work, which really meant he’d clean the barber shop up.

“Then, he had a vending machine there, with Yoo-hoos and snacks he’d open up and give me whatever I wanted to drink from it.

“I’d see guys reading the paper and magazines and just listen to conversations they’d have,” Dominguez says. “Of course, I was young and I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

After graduating from Las Vegas High School, Dominguez went to college for a while and worked a few jobs, but felt enthusiastic about none of it. During his sophomore year in high school, Dominguez — thanks, he’s sure, to his grandfather’s influence — had begun to think about pursuing a career as a barber.

He enrolled in barber college and, after graduation, learned the art of barbering while working at EastSide Cutters Barbershop, where his uncle, Paul Madrid, worked and is a co-owner. Dominguez followed that up with a dive into luxury barbering during a stint at The Art of Shaving at Caesars Palace.

A place to relax

In November, he learned that the barbershop at the El Cortez had closed. Dominguez, who always had planned to someday open his own shop, went to the El Cortez on a day off — dressed in jeans, Jordans, a T-shirt and backwards ball cap — hoping for nothing more than maybe finding a contact from whom he could inquire about the shop.

But the simple fact-finding mission turned serious when everybody he talked to would, when learning Dominguez is Julian Madrid’s grandson, send Dominguez to the next highest corporate higher-up.

Long story short: Dominguez says he ended up meeting that very day with El Cortez owner Ken Epstein, who knew and respected his grandfather and, because of that, was happy to meet his grandson.

“I was born and raised in Vegas and I’ve heard stories about what Vegas used to be like,” Dominguez says. “I was always told about how one’s word was everything and for a moment I got to witness what Las Vegas was like, because Mr. Epstein took time to meet out of respect for who my grandfather was. Just to see that level of respect was amazing, and I’m forever grateful.”

Dominguez offers clients a line of services from a haircut ($35 for “traditional,” which includes a shampoo, condition, blow-dry and style to $45 for a “Speakeasy,” which includes all of that plus a scalp therapy treatment, head massage and hot towel wrap) to hot-towel straight-razor shaves, beard trims, facials and scalp therapy. More than that, it’s infused by the spirit of Julian Madrid, whose original cash register, complete with $2 bill and, for some reason, a bullet, are on display.

“For me, a barbershop is where you come to let loose and really open up,” Dominguez says. “If you’re married, you’re a husband. That’s your role. If you’re a man at work, you have a job that needs to be done. Back at home, you have children, you’re a dad, you make stuff work.

“When you’re in a barbershop, to me it’s the only place you can come and get off your feet and vent just whatever emotions are inside. It’s a place where you can really relax, and I love that.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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