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BARBER RESTORES SHOP AS SHRINE TO TIME WHEN HE WAS A LITTLE SHAVER

A shaving mug, straight razor, clippers and hair tonics are lined up above the sink. Saturday Evening Post and Look magazines are stacked on the table. A sign on the wall advertises $2.75 haircuts, $1.75 shaves. It's the late 1950s.

The only thing missing is the barber. There's an unlit Chesterfield cigarette in the ashtray as though he might walk in at any minute. But Isidore Cioffi, who opened the first barbershop in the LaSalle section of the city, died in 1970 at the age of 63.

His shop is alive with memories. His son, retired teacher Salvatore "Sam" Cioffi, has turned it into a museum devoted to 1950s and 1960s memorabilia, with an emphasis on old-time barbershops.

"What I recall most about my youth is the smell of cigarette and cigar smoke, the slap of straight razors against leather straps and the glint of chrome ashtrays placed beside each barber chair," Cioffi said. "It offered glimpses into the mysterious world of older men."

The barbershop, which is attached to Cioffi's house on 81st Street, is still used as a meeting place for Cioffi and his friends.

Entering it is like stepping back in time. A jukebox is playing "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darrin. There are photographs of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean on the wall and old movie posters, like "Casablanca." A life-size cardboard cutout of Humphrey Bogart stands against one wall. Perry Como, "the singing barber," is among the old record albums on the shelf.

"People stop by and ask for a haircut, but I don't really cut hair," said Cioffi.

His father tried to teach him the trade in the late 1950s, when the younger Cioffi was 16.

"He would let me start on the kids' haircuts, and he would finish them, but I wasn't cut out for the work," said Cioffi. "I always wanted to be a teacher."

Cioffi's starting salary as a mathematics teacher at LaSalle Senior High School was $4,500 a year. He said his father was making close to $7,000 a year, very good money in those days.

In the early 1960s, the population of Niagara Falls was 101,000, the highest ever, according to city historian Donald E. Loker. The Niagara Power Project, the largest construction project in the nation at the time, was being built, employing thousands of people and pouring millions of dollars into the local economy.

"They were wonderful years," Cioffi remembered, as the juke box played "You Are My Sunshine."

But as history would have it, four mop-haired young men from Britain would change the fortunes of Cioffi's father, the well-to-do barber.

"In 1964, when the Beatles became famous, kids stopped getting haircuts," said Cioffi. "Beatlemania hit the barbershop business like a bomb. My father would sit there for hours without a customer."

After his father died, the barbershop sat empty for 20 years, becoming dismantled over time and virtually gutted.

Cioffi, a bachelor who lived at home all through his teaching years, retired in 1996 after 33 years as a math teacher. A year later, his mother, Margaret, died at the age of 90.

"When my mother passed away, I was very depressed and needed something to occupy my mind," Cioffi said. "I had my father's original barber chair, and I set about collecting all the memorabilia from that time. I rebuilt the barbershop as a tribute to my father and to keep alive an era that meant the most to our family and to many people."

Cioffi drives a 1965 Chevy Impala, an exact replica of the first car he ever drove. He also has a mint-condition 1957 Chevy Bel Air, currently in storage.

Cioffi's collection of memorabilia is seen by local historian and author Paul Gromosiak as more than one man's hobby.

"Here's a person who has preserved in his home part of our history," Gromosiak said. "It's nice to see someone taking pride in their heritage so much so they've created their own museum."

Gromosiak wishes Cioffi wasn't alone in preserving the past. "There must be other people in Niagara Falls who have artifacts they could share with the community. And wouldn't it be wonderful if we could re-create our history on a grander scale, such as a world-class museum that contained the entire history of the region," he said.

It was Gromosiak who last year proposed developing such a museum -- the Niagara Falls Historical Center -- on the site of the defunct Splash Water Park on Quay Street between Buffalo Avenue and Niagara Street, close enough to the falls to be easily patronized by tourists.

But after gathering initial public support, the proposal lost momentum when funding became an issue and city officials and Niagara Falls Redevelopment associates showed no interest. Gromosiak said he is meeting with the new mayor, Irene J. Elia, next month to try to rekindle local government interest in the museum proposal.

Cioffi spent more than $20,000 rebuilding the barbershop and stocking it with artifacts from the 1950s and 1960s. The jukebox alone cost $7,000, he said. A security camera and alarm system work quietly to protect his investment.

"I feel happy when I'm in the barbershop," he said. "I get nostalgic, but not sad. I look around and think of my father."

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