14th Street’s Final Frontier


Mitoni’s Unisex Styling Salon in 1987. (Photo by Michael Horsley)

While regally named condo units and internationally themed eateries take control of 14th Street between Thomas Circle and U Street, a far more humble establishment sits on one of the drag’s busiest of blocks, almost entirely unnoticed. If you blink or nod your head too many times while listening to music, you just might miss it.  But there it stands, on the corner of 14th and Wallach Place:  Mitoni’s Unisex Styling Salon,  a genuine relic from a bygone era both inside and out.

A barber pole stands in the window, long unplugged. Old hair dryer chairs line a wall in the front. A stand with old pink and blue curlers separates the waiting area from the work area. Even the glass front door has a tag scrawled on it, making it hard to see into the shop. It feels like time stopped sometime in the late ’80s.

With its 1950’s architectural flourishes, you could call Mitoni’s the strip’s final frontier. After moving from 15th and U Streets, the shop found its current location in 1968.  The building is owned by Thelma Cofer, a lovely lady who now runs Adventureland Day Nursery on Kansas Avenue, NW.

Bobby, the shop’s unofficial manager, is there everyday. Amicably gruff- he wouldn’t give his last name- he still lives in D.C. Cofer’s daughter, Antonia, is a dentist and Bobby’s storefront neighbor next door. The salon, in fact, is named after her.

Johnnie Mombo, 75, a hairdresser who now lives in Waldorf, has been at the shop for about eight  years, but in the neighborhood for as long as he can remember, working for other salons. Last week, a customer came in and informed him of a plan that would make the building a part of a nine-story 75-unit residential project, according to DCUrbanTurf.com. It was the first he’d heard of it.

“It damn sure looks good doesn’t it,” Mombo said. “I’m so glad they’re throwing it up fast, maybe I’ll get time to see it.

“This is wild, but it’s alright with me,” he continued. “People are improving all over the damn city. But, hey, you can’t stop progress. It’s nice that they’re doing something to this damn neighborhood.”

When you think about it, it’s amazing that the shop has held on for this long. Next door, a condo unit is going up where a post office once was. Across the street, Louis, a new apartment complex, is soon to occupy nearly an entire city block.

That makes Mitoni’s a rarity: An old shop owned by the building’s  owner, with no intention of moving.

But for as much conversation as there has been lately on the changing 14th Street, even that chatter has been a passing thought at the shop.

“You know what? I never really thought [about the fact] that this place has been a salon for over 50 years, while everything else has been something and changed,” said Jamiah Christian, 32, a barber.

It’s almost as if the world outside doesn’t exist when you step inside the salon.

On the street, the strip is still a summer blend of old and new. Shirtless neighborhood kids ride by on their motorbikes.

A guy wearing a pink polo and driving a Fiat is screaming the lyrics to Kanye’s “New Slaves” as he passes. Construction workers take a break and eat lunch.

Inside, eyes are focused on the TV. The guys are watching their stories.

“We’re just old-timers,” Bobby, 70, said earlier in the day.

The very name of the daytime drama onscreen could be used to describe the very real lives of the people seen outside the shop window: “The Young and the Restless.”

PHOTO: Before: Michael Horsley. After: Clinton Yates – The Washington Post.




Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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