When Peter Tyrrell needs a haircut, he climbs into his car and drives two hours from Eldred, Pa., to a quaint barbershop on Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore, where the cuts are as old-fashioned as the men wielding the trimmers and the checkered floor beneath their feet.
Tyrrell, 47, has been a customer of Rich Rosso’s since he was 18. He is especially particular about his flattop trim, and that requires his favorite barber.
When the Riverside native moved away to get married years ago, he embarked on a search for another barber in the area. It’s not that there are no barbershops in Eldred – there are a handful within a 15-minute drive – but none that could cut Tyrrell’s hair like Rosso can.
“I tried two different places down here, but nobody cuts a flattop as straight as Richie the Barber,” Tyrrell said. “If he moved to Canada, I would get a passport.”
Rosso, 63, has been in the business for more than 40 years. He opened his 2684 Elmwood Ave. shop called the Real Barbers 11 years ago and became a fixture in the Kenmore-Tonawanda community.
The five-chair shop, and others like it, are traditional touchstones for an industry at the beginning of a renaissance following decades of regression. The services offered – hot-towel shaves, $12 cuts and a comfortable customer experience – have endeared the profession to customers. Now they are helping spur a resurgence.
Active barber licenses have increased in New York State each year since 2002, following at least a decade of steady decline. (the state’s license database only goes back to 1994.)
In Western New York, the figure has jumped from 461 to 490 since January, the highest it’s been since 2003. It’s still a far cry from the 735 licensed barbers operating in the region 20 years ago, but interest in the trade is rising.
People like Les Leopold want to be a part of the comeback.
As director of the Adult Education Center of Buffalo Public Schools, Leopold is charged with identifying areas of demand in the community workforce.
It took him about eight years to convince his bosses of the need for the Buffalo School of Cosmetology, and upon its opening in 2012, Leopold started getting calls from people asking about a barber school.
The Buffalo School of Barbering launched its first class under the Buffalo Public Schools adult education division in April 2013.
A few months later in October, Erie 1 BOCES started a master barber program of its own, also receiving an outpouring of inquiries. A course for high school seniors will begin in the fall to coincide with the cosmetology program.
The two schools are the first barbering trade programs to open in Western New York since the Chippewa Barber School closed its doors in 1971, and they attracted more than 30 students during the first year.
The classes have a wide variety of students, from 18-year-olds fresh from high school and college graduates, to longtime barbers hoping to refine their skills and people in their 50s searching for second careers.
There are also three women enrolled at the Buffalo School of Barbering, a new trend in a male-dominated industry.
“We thought that this region had a real need for barbers,” Leopold said. “I noticed all these barbershops popping up around the area. The minute we opened up the program, the calls were coming and the classes started filling.”
Better training needed
Thomas Nichols, the lead instructor at the Buffalo School of Barbering, said future barbers weren’t being trained well enough without a school.
When the Chippewa Street school closed, hopeful local barbers had two options: head off to expensive trade schools in Rochester, Toronto or New York City or complete their training hours during a more prolonged two-year apprenticeship with a master barber before taking the state exam.
While apprenticeships taught how to cut hair, Nichols said most overseeing barbers failed to touch on the finer points of tonsorial services – massage therapy, scalp treatment, customer engagement, entrepreneurship.
Nichols teaches chapters on each, while blending traditional components like hot-towel shaves with new artistry hairstyles.
“The whole idea of this course is to bring back the professionalism, the traditional customer service to barbering,” Nichols said.
His students – and hopeful barbers everywhere – are learning to blend the old with new ideas, from which a new brand of barbering has derived.
A new wave
In larger cities like Toronto and New York, old-school barbershops like the Real Barbers are blending with the flashy trend shops.
Some students would like to bring a slice of that culture here.
In Toronto, Crows Nest Barbershop draws clients young and old. It’s a chic, trendy outlet with attitude and a refrigerator where customers can grab a drink and kick back as a barber with equal parts talent and tattoos snips new twists on old-style cuts.
It caught the eye of Jason Bauers, a 28-year-old student at the Buffalo School of Barbering.
“It was the first really enjoyable haircutting experience I’ve had,” Bauers said.
For males, hairstyles of old are in vogue. Many again seek the comb-overs and slickbacks of year’s past, with new flare.
“What’s old is new again,” said Patricia Kirisits, coordinator for the Erie 1 BOCES barber program. “Barbering itself is becoming more and more like an art form.”
Jacob Marsh, another student, was sporting one of those hairdos during a recent class – a thick slickback on top, shaved down to a buzz on both sides.
Marsh, 23, said he was attracted to barbering because today’s styles defy rules, allowing for more creativity.
“I think it’s reintegrating the old-school, traditional stuff and it’s taking it to a new place, which is exciting,” Marsh said. “A lot of younger guys want to do something more traditional with their hair, and I think that’s really cool.”
Marsh thinks Buffalo has a place for shops built in the mold of Crows Nest.
“Cutting hair is an art form,” he said. “I follow a lot of other barbershops. They have a lot of stuff Buffalo doesn’t have. I kind of wanted to bring that here.”
No matter the method, Nichols feels the foundation for any successful barber should be what shops like Rosso’s have been doing at a high level for years – customer service and professionalism.
A veteran team
Customers who have been with Rosso for years – some for 20 years or longer – appreciate the value in the extra touch, which could come in the form of a tongue-in-cheek wisecrack from Rosso’s longtime partner Mark Wnink, 63, or a story about Buffalo’s mobsters from 81-year-old West Side barbershop legend Larry Scinta.
Two more barbers – Russ Giambeluca, who merged his barbershop with Rosso’s to form The Real Barbers, and co-owner Cindy Montanino, who now spends three days a week running The Real Barbers’ newest location in Grand Island – combine to give the shop its personality.
Rosso, after 43 years cutting hair, insists business has never been better.
Rosso hopes to staff his new place at 2379 Grand Island Blvd. with students from Buffalo’s new schools once they pass the state exam to go along with the new-age movement.
The secret sauce?
The formula for success in barbering, and in business, Rosso says is the unique rapport he builds with his customers.
“We get these customers laughing in here,” Rosso said. “We have a lot of fun. When they come back, they have fun. They want to come back. And when they come back, they start becoming like your own family.”
One customer, a first-timer recently moved to Tonawanda from Las Vegas, said his first order of business once settled was to find a barbershop.
“You’ll be my guy,” Ken Wright, 65, said to Wnink, running his right hand across his newly minted buzz cut with a nod of satisfaction.
Rosso has seen boys grow to men in his chair. Now they bring their sons in for haircuts.
From Eldred to Blasdell and everywhere in between, they keep coming back. “It’s not because of our dynamic personalities,” Rosso joked. “He owes me money,” Dan Murphy, 54, a Tonawanda resident and customer of 25 years, chirped when asked why he returns.
“My hair keeps growing,” quipped Bob Voigt, 58, of Amherst, who has sat in Wnink’s chair for almost 20 years.
Eventually, one by one, they eased up on the satire and confessed.
“In all seriousness, it’s the atmosphere,” Murphy said. “Everybody knows everybody. Where can you get a haircut for $12? It’s just nice to come in and relax.
“That’s going to cost you, Rich,” he added, before leaving the shop.
He’ll be back. They always come back, because there’s nothing quite like it.