The doors are open at the Cameron House – just not the ones you’re used to walking into.
Though the long-running Queen West bar and music venue has been closed for more than 16 months, Cameron House Barbers is up and running. And after a frustrating false start last year, it’s full speed ahead.
“Oh my god, the amount of hair I’m cutting off – just filling garbage bags,” says co-owner Ashley Nevin. “People are so excited to be back in the shop, and there are a lot of people who’ve been desperate for haircuts.”
You could measure the length of the lockdown by the long, flowing manes of people on the streets of Toronto. There are a lot more fresh fades and clean-shaven faces around Queen, and Nevin and her fellow barber/stylist Vi Bui have played a part.
Located through a side-door on Cameron Street, the barber shop opened in late June, its second stint after a brief two-month run last year before the lockdown. With the Cameron House continuing to wait until pandemic regulations make it worthwhile to reopen as a music venue, regulars have a new reason to stop by their old haunt.
“We’re coming up on 500 days closed [at the bar],” says Cameron House owner Cosmo Ferraro, Nevin’s boyfriend and Cameron House Barbers co-owner. “This place hasn’t been closed for more than five days for 40 years. Probably longer. There have been people here for well over 100 years.”
The history of the Cameron House
The Cameron House that you know and love has existed since 1981. It’s coming up on its 40 year anniversary in October. (NOW started around the same time and our histories are very much entwined.)
That’s the year Paul Sannella and his sister Anne-Marie Ferraro – Cosmo Ferraro’s uncle and mother – along with friend Herb Tookey took over an old dilapidated hotel and turned it into a hub for artists and musicians.
“At the time, it was this real divey, grimy spot where old guys would come in and get their nickel sleeves of beer,” Ferraro says. “I think they bought it for the upstairs as much as the bar. They wanted a place where artists and like-minded people could live. The fact that the bar came with it was kind of a plus. They basically just gave them a space and listened to what they wanted and accidentally created this scene.”
The Cameron House was one of the main hubs for the Queen Street music scene in the 80s and 90s, which also included the Rivoli, the Horseshoe, Peter Pan, the BamBoo, the Beverley Tavern and others. At the Cameron, you could catch residencies and one-offs from pivotal artists like Blue Rodeo, Molly Johnson, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Jane Siberry, Handsome Ned and more. (There’s a framed Handsome Ned NOW Magazine cover sitting above one of the doors.) It also became a hub for soul, fashion, poetry and art.
It was the kind of bohemian scene that’s less and less sustainable as rents rise and condo developers buy up spaces. Many of the people contributing to the culture at the Cameron also lived upstairs in a boarding house. In fact, many still do. Nevin shares a kitchen with them and sees them every day.
When a real estate listing went up for the Cameron House in 2010 and rumours swirled that the bar could be sold or closed, many people were just as worried about those upstairs residents.
Cosmo Ferraro was 22 at the time. He’d had an on-again off-again relationship with the Cameron House over the years, getting back into its orbit when he got serious about guitar in his teens. His uncle told him he had to catch the long-time Tuesday resident band Run With the Kittens. As the original management got out, Ferraro was left in charge.
“They gave me the keys to the bar and the apartment upstairs, and I moved in,” he recalls. Now, more than a decade later, his younger brother has his old room – but Ferraro is still in charge, along with his siblings.
Not a ton has changed since the bar’s heyday. Ferraro admits he’s not as in with the visual arts world as the earlier generation, so he’s leaned more into music. There are still elder statespeople holding down the front and back room stages – like Run With the Kittens and Kevin Quain – but also a second generation scene of artists like Devin Cuddy (son of Blue Rodeo leader Jim Cuddy), Sameer Cash (son of musician and politician Andrew Cash), Al Tuck, Whitney Rose and Ferraro’s own family band, Ferraro. In the 2010s, many of those musicians put out releases on the label Ferraro started – Cameron House Records.
“It feels like we’re carrying the legacy forward,” Ferraro says.
From blues to barbers
The barber shop idea came long before the lockdown.
Nevin and Ferraro met while she was cutting his hair at a previous shop. They had dreamed of opening a spot, but she took some convincing to do it in the middle of a pandemic when both were effectively unemployed.
But then Videocab, the highly influential genre-blurring Toronto theatre company, moved its office and occasional performance/rehearsal space out of the Cameron House after 35 years. Ferraro actually searched around for a business that would fit – maybe a guitar shop or something musical – but realized the barber shop was perfect.
“It would be insane to say no,” Nevin says. “Who knows when we’d have another opportunity like this?”
The two businesses make sense together, but there’s also a surprising juxtaposition. The Cameron House is dimly lit and boldly colourful, a spot that’s been used as a canvas for decades of artists. There are murals and art pieces everywhere, from the famous “This Is Paradise” mural to the ants crawling inside and outside the building to the cheeky ceiling frescos. Cameron House Barbers, on the other hand, has a clean, minimalist barber shop aesthetic with white walls, crisp lighting, vintage chairs and wooden fixtures.
“I love that it’s such a difference,” Nevin says. “So many people come in and say ‘I did not expect this coming up that stairwell.’ It makes it like a hidden gem.”
That mix of new and old works well for pandemic times. Currently, both barbers are women, and they want it to be an inclusive and comfortable space for everyone. They’re careful not to fall into the bro-y or macho pitfalls that some new throwback barber shops can create. Both specialize in fades and love doing straight razor shaves and beard trims, but they’ve also worked in salons, so they’re as comfortable with scissors as clippers – something that’s come in handy during COVID.
Even though the Cameron House bar is allowed to open under Ontario’s reopening plan, it’s staying closed for now. Under the step 3 spacing and live music regulations, they’d only be able to have 10 or 15 people per room. Ferraro is looking toward September, though there may be intimate ticketed concerts before then.
Eventually, they hope to combine the two businesses, building in a notification system so you can grab a beer and catch a band at the Cameron House while you wait for your hair appointment. You’ll be able to move freely between the two without having to go outside.
“You can check in, hear the gossip, say what’s up,” says Ferraro. “The dream is that this would be that classic community barber shop, a hub of social life.”
It would make sense – it’s written into its DNA.