At Nick’s Barbershop
Story and Photographs by Tim Johnston
A barbershop, as opposed to a hair salon, is a man’s place. Customers arrive for a haircut, as opposed to a styling, and maybe a little trim of the eyebrows and mustache (and even the ears), if such is required. They might have come at one time for a shave but that is now pretty much a thing of the past.
Customers come as well to visit, to share stories of family and work, and in turn to be entertained by the barber’s vast archive of stories and information, good jokes and political acumen. They come to see a friend into whose hands they trust that most critical of operations, a good haircut. Odds are pretty fair that they will encounter friends waiting their turn under the blue smock in the big chair.
Men don’t like to change barbers. Once a man is satisfied with the work of a barber (and if his significant other similarly agrees) the customer-barber bond is sealed. Often, fathers will bring young sons for first haircuts with “their” barbers. Cutting hair for multiple generations is not unknown. Barbers also resist change. Old established shops often have décor almost identical to what they started with years ago. Car calendars are popular along with photographs of the proprietor, customers, and community events pinned up around the walls.
And so the barber and his shop become a person and a place common to many men of different ages. The barber stays and waits. Customers visit then depart until the next trim, perhaps in a few weeks time, perhaps in a few years. The pace of visitors varies depending on the day of the week and the time of year. Saturdays are busy. Days before weddings, graduations and even funerals, likewise. Tuesday afternoons can be slow.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I visited the barbershop of Nick Corea. Nick was sitting in one of the two chairs, or rather reclining, with the chair back tilted and the footrest elevated, awaiting visitors. I came not as someone in need of a trim but as an interviewer in search of some of the history of the place and its proprietor.
Nick has been at his little shop on 26 Avenue Southwest for 47 years. He came to Calgary with his family from Catanzara, Italy in 1959. “Things in here haven’t changed much,” he told me. “I put in better chairs and the old cabinet radio is long gone.” In the early days, there was a ladies salon located behind the barbershop and both establishments shared the same front door. “Ladies would walk through to their appointments in a hurry,” Nick said, “but after they had their hair done they took their time walking out.”
Norm came in for a cut. He’s a retired lawyer and was about to leave for Shuswap Lake for some vacation time. He comes for a trim about every three weeks and on this day he and Nick caught up. Norm’s architect son had moved to Calgary from Vancouver but was having trouble finding work here in his field. Nick related the death of a mutual acquaintance and former customer. He told Norm that the widow came to tell him about her husband’s passing and then passed away herself within two weeks.
The door opened and another customer walked in. The barber and this gentleman obviously hadn’t seen each other for some time and the greetings were warm and personal. And just then, a little barbershop miracle happened. I knew the newcomer as well. We had worked together in a professional organization for several years but after retirement, we lost touch. Grant Dustin taught in Calgary and was one of the city’s outstanding social studies teachers. He was also a regular customer of Nick’s throughout his teaching career. What are the odds, I thought, that we would meet here in this shop? Grant has lived in Vancouver now for five years. He was in Calgary to visit friends and family this week. On a whim he decided to stop in at Nick’s, get a trim and renew an old acquaintance. An hour before, I had stepped into a shop I had never laid eyes on to meet the owner. And because of those circumstances, another old acquaintance was happily renewed.
For the next hour or so, we three fellows had a fine visit. Grant got a nice haircut but not without some bantering. “After all those years of haircuts, you never gave me a discount,” he said. “That’s because I had to charge a finder’s fee,” Nick replied. In truth, Grant’s hair is holding up remarkably well.
Then came time for goodbyes. Grant left to start the long drive back to Vancouver. I spent a little more time with Nick for photographs outside the shop then thanked him for his hospitality and left for home to begin my story.
Nick walked back into the shop, reclined the chair, and waited for his next visitor.