Filed Under Business

Crystal Barber Shop

Haircuts, Billiards, and Betting

From business to betting, this barbershop carries a lasting legacy in Pittsburgh.

In a small corner building at the intersection of Wylie Avenue and Crawford Street stood the Crystal Barber Shop and Billiard Parlor. Bright neon signs in the front window drew customers into a place that provided more than just haircuts and shaves - it was a hub of all aspects of male social life in the Hil.

The roots of Crystal Barber Shop trace back to the 1920s when it was first opened by the skilled barber Frank Belt.

Woogie Harris had ulterior motives for purchasing the shop…it was used by Harris and Greenlee as one of the headquarters for an illegal lottery known as “the numbers.”

While he sold the business in 1923 to William "Woogie" Harris, Belt continued to work as a barber at Crystal for many years, gaining a reputation as one of the finest barbers in the city.

Men and boys of all ages congregated within the confines of the six-chair shop to engage in activities that went beyond the realm of hairstyling. Like many Black barbershops, the Crystal played an instrumental role in fostering a sense of community and trust among black entrepreneurs and customers. It was a space where patrons could immerse themselves in the news of the day, swap stories, and get cleaned up for a night out at nearby entertainment venues like Crawford Grill or the Hurricane Lounge. Adding to its appeal as a male social hub, the basement of Crystal's also housed a billiards room, opened in 1941 by Harris and his business partner Gus Greenlee.

But the Crystal Barber Shop and Billiard Parlor also had its secrets. While it was, in fact, a legitimate business, Woogie Harris had ulterior motives for purchasing the shop - namely, the shop was used by Harris and Greenlee as one of the headquarters for an illegal lottery known as “the numbers." 

The numbers is a lottery-style game where players would choose a number, lay a bet with a bookie, and hope their number hit at the next call. To insure the game wasn't fixed, the number was usually based on some unrelated figure that was both publically available and outside the bookie's control - a popular choice was the published volume of shares traded in a given day on the New York Stock Exchange. It was the Hill’s worst-kept secret that this small barber shop was a front for one of the most successful numbers “banks” in the city.

Traditionally, the rise of Harris and Greenlee as the preeminent numbers men in Pittsburgh has been ascribed to a 1930 “crisis” when the number 805 - a favorite "lucky number" of bettors - hit and the city’s numbers men were on the hook for massive payouts. As the story goes, many competing Pittsburgh numbers banks collapsed on the same bet, but Harris and Greenlee scrounged sufficient funds together to emerge after the crisis as the "only game in town.” Conflicting accounts in the historical record, however, suggest this narrative may be more lore than fact.

Regardless, by the 1930s the partners ran a highly-successful numbers racket. While Pittsburgh police arrested Harris and Greenlee numerous times over the years on racketeering charges, the fines made little impact on business. It is estimated that at its peak, Harris and Greenlee earned as much as $25,000 a day running numbers.

Pittsburgh’s urban renewal projects ultimately pushed Harris out of his Wylie Avenue shop to a new location at 1605 Centre Avenue. Upon Woogie’s passing in 1967, his wife, Ada, inherited the shop and entrusted its management to her former son-in-law, Harold Slater. Slater was not involved in the numbers game like his predecessor, but had quite the knack for building community. In addition to the shop, Slater worked in waste management for the city of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Dolores, raised their family just across the street from the Crystal Barber Shop. Harold gave excellent hot towel treatments, served Pittsburgh’s ballplayers and boxers, and generally created a social atmosphere to be remembered.

Although the Crystal Barber Shop and Billiard Parlor no longer stands on Centre Avenue, its legacy persists in a unique way. Michelle Slater, the daughter of Crystal manager and barber Harold Slater, began practicing hair over twenty-eight years ago. Today, Michelle operates as “The Crystal Barber” out of Sola Salon, located at 5241 Liberty Avenue Suite 1—just a few minutes away from the original Wylie Avenue shop. Michelle hopes that, through her work, she can continue the tradition of the barbershop and salon as an inclusive community space.

Images

Barbers at Work A full house at the Crystal Barber Shop. Men and boys of varying ages can be seen receiving haircuts. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1949
1400 Block of Wylie Avenue A street view of Wylie Avenue. The Crystal Barber Shop is the second building on the right, across from the Crawford Grill. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1942
The Crystal Billiard Parlor An interior shot of the Crystal Billiard Parlor. In the basement of this room, Woogie Harris and Gus Greenlee ran Pittsburgh's numbers game. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1940-1950
Crystal Barber Shop Interior The interior of the Crystal Barber Shop's Wylie Avenue location. Visible are the shop's six stations, equipped with mirrors, towels, and hair cutting capes. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1942
Crystal Exterior An exterior shot of the Crystal Barber Shop and Billiard Parlor's Wylie Avenue location. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1950-1960
Crystal Barber Shop Advertisement An advertisement for the Crystal Barber Shop's Centre Avenue location, listing Woogie Harris as proprietor and Harold Slater as a barber. Source: The New Negro Directory, University of Pittsburgh ULS Digital Collections Date: 1962
Crystal Barber Shop and Billiard Parlor being razed, 1400 Wylie Avenue, Hill District Source: Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Creator: Charles “Teenie” Harris Date: c. 1958-1961

Location

1405 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Michelle Slater, "The Crystal Barber" business website https://www.solasalonstudios.com/salon-professional/michelleslater
Alyssa Chesek, “Crystal Barber Shop,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/18.