Luigi DeMarco has cut hair at his Queen City Barber Shop Tuesday through Saturday, 8 to 5, for more than 60 years.
A widened Asylum Street covers the place where the original shop stood in 1944. Back then, DeMarco would meet barbers from nearby shops for coffee by Union Place, where they ribbed him about always seeming to snag the most customers.
Since 1983, the shop has sat on Farmington Avenue, in the former Hastings Hotel and Conference Center. The sign reads "Y BARBER SHOP" because fierce winds blew off the first half of the sign last year. The building's owner never fixed it.
Now, at 83, DeMarco's barbering career is ending - but not the way he intended.
After the Hastings closed three years ago, the building was sold by Aetna Inc., its former owner. Then last month, DeMarco received a letter from the new owner, Winstanley Enterprises LLC.
Winstanley said DeMarco had until the end of May to vacate the building. Winstanley had leased the entire building to the Connecticut Culinary Institute, which plans to open in August.
"We had an agreement with the Winstanley group that there would be no outside tenants," said Brooke Baran, a spokeswoman for the cooking school. "The Culinary Institute's plan is to put mostly food-related venues on that side of the building."
DeMarco didn't expect to retire this year, at least not this way. His lawyer persuaded Winstanley to give him until the end of June. Now, his time is up. Saturday will be Queen City Barber Shop's last day.
And so, rather than find yet another location, DeMarco decided it wasn't worth the trouble. His one employee, Serafino Giannantonio, who has worked with him for 38 years, hopes to open his own shop.
Thrifty Car Rental, which sits next door to Queen City Barber Shop, will also close.
The era in which DeMarco started his business, when Hartford had myriad independent, old-fashioned barber shops, began dwindling long ago, DeMarco and other local barbers say. Now, you'd be more likely to see a beauty salon or unisex shop open up than a traditional barbershop, said Phillip Fichera of the Kingswood Barber Shop farther down Farmington Avenue.
DeMarco is grateful, not angry. "I have had people come here for many, many years; those people were good to me," DeMarco said.
Although he was born in Hartford, DeMarco still carries a heavy accent from growing up in Kassarta, Italy, where he learned the trade as a young boy.
After arriving in New York City in 1940 and then serving in World War II, DeMarco made his way back to Hartford.
In those early days, he knew all the barbers in town; now, DeMarco said, his old friends' shops have closed.
Queen City Barber Shop has done well, DeMarco said. He does not keep track of how many people pass through each day, or each week, for that matter. But he said he has made a decent living from the business, putting two daughters and one son through college.
"At the end of the week, I just cash in and take the total, and that's it," DeMarco said. Someone comes by each month to collect rent.
Inside, the shop is clean. Simple. A black-and-white checkered floor and four red chairs, with a small cash register at the end of the counter. On the surface, it does not appear particularly distinct. But it is the rapport DeMarco has with his customers that seems to drive the business.
"I'm been coming here for 32 years, and I'm one of the younger ones," joked West Hartford resident David Silverstone. "This place is an institution."
Silverstone said he used to drive an hour every month for a haircut when he briefly lived in New Haven. Other customers, DeMarco said, have driven just as far.
DeMarco left Asylum Street in 1962 to move to a location farther up Farmington Avenue, in an old mansion owned by several lawyers. Aetna later bought it and built a parking lot over it, forcing DeMarco to move to Sigourney Street in the late 1960s. When the Hastings was completed in 1983, DeMarco moved there, to his current location at 902 Farmington Ave.
On Wednesday, plastic orange fencing surrounded the walkway, a bulldozer next to it. The traditional blue, red and white-striped barber pole remained above the door.
DeMarco has not yet begun packing.
"There's nothing to pack," he said - just some chairs, the TV, his barbering tools.
And then there are the smaller, sentimental objects, such as the statuette a friend gave him 30 years ago of an old-time mustachioed barber leaning against a barber pole - razor in one hand, coffee cup in the other.
"Hartford was a nice city, but now it's a different world," said DeMarco, who lives in East Granby. "This city went down so fast it's unbelievable."
He noted, though, that he has had no problems with crime.
In the end, DeMarco has mixed feelings.
"I want to get out, anyway," he said. "I want to spend more time with my wife."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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