On Aug. 1, Barsamian will open Belgrade Place, luxury apartments in his native West Roxbury that he says are Boston’s first prefab rental units. The 39 units were built entirely in Maine, and shipped to Boston in 75 trailer trucks. Three days after arriving here, he says, the units were up. Barsamian is best known for his beauty empire: 25 salons that include Lord’s & Lady’s, Mizu, James Joseph, and Green Tangerine Spa & Salon. He employs about 600 people and does $25 million a year in sales.
‘People brag about how cheap they got their car, how they bought an $800 Armani suit for $500. But they never brag about getting a $5 haircut.’
Q. You’re a self-made man. Tell me about your background.
A. I’m from an immigrant family. Both of my parents came here from the genocide. My mother was 7 years old. She hid under the bed. They killed her whole family. She and my father met in the Armenian community in Milford. My father died of a heart attack at 45 and she brought up six kids, alone, in West Roxbury.
Q. So you didn’t grow up with much.
A. Nothing. I graduated from English High School in 1964, and in those days, college was like 700 bucks. We didn’t have it. A cousin said, ‘Why don’t you become a hairdresser?’ Well, geez, I thought it was cheap and I could have a trade. So I ended up going to hairdresser school and I opened Lord’s & Lady’s in 1971 in West Roxbury. My thing was, shopping malls were just getting popular in the late ’70s, and I wanted to be there.
Q. At Mizu, haircuts start at $130. Would you pay that for a haircut?
A. They start at $130 and go up to $250 and we’re jammed in there. Oh my God, Mizu on Park Avenue in New York —
Q. Why do you think people are willing to pay that?
A. People brag about how cheap they got their car, how they bought an $800 Armani suit for $500. But they never brag about getting a $5 haircut. Not many people brag about going to Supercuts. It’s part of the ego of the human being. I think it’s vanity. I think it’s ego. People want to identify with getting personal hair care services at a pricey place.
Q. How about your own hair?
A. Would I pay $200? Personally, I have to say no. But the people who do — the stories are unbelievable. At Mizu, people pay $75 a day to get their hair washed and dried. We have one lady who’s been doing it for two years, seven days a week. One guy paid $130 for a haircut and tipped everybody 20 bucks, even the receptionist. He was an oil man.
Q. How and why did you get into real estate, since hair has been so good to you?
A. We’ve been in West Roxbury for 40 years, with our first salon, and next door, there was a little old house with an old couple in it. The husband died and my wife took the woman under her wing. When she went into a nursing home, we bought the property, an acre and a half. I bought most of it for parking for my salon and rented the house out. Then I got the notion, let me put a rental unit up. I’ve had one in Dedham for 30 years.
Q. Why apartments and not condos?
A. No bank would have financed it. People’s credit ratings have fallen. So they need more money to put down on a condo and the banks aren’t prepared to make those loans.
Q. Where do you live?
A. We have lived in Westwood for 40 years. We bought a condo at the Mandarin [Oriental] in Boston, but we couldn’t sell our house. It’s rented to a Saudi prince right now. He’s going to Northeastern. But we’re ready to move into the city.
Q. Why not live in your new apartment building?
A. Everybody says you’re crazy to live in a building you own.
Q. Do you have children?
A. We have three grown daughters and five grandchildren. Two of our daughters and our son-in-law work in the business.
Q. Do you donate to charity?
A. We always give back to the community, whatever it takes. It’s just part of the deal.
Q. What is your favorite cause?
A. The American Heart Association. My father died young of a heart attack, and I’ve had a couple of blockages.
Q. Do you still cut hair?
A. I do on Saturdays in West Roxbury. I’ve got my own little clientele I’ve had for a long time.
Q. Are you any good?
A. I used to be. I’m not up on the ins and outs of the latest. I don’t need to be a good hair stylist anymore.