Monday, March 21, 2016
Fred cuts the hair of Harold Sivertson, who says he has been getting his hair cut at Piccolo’s for 48 years.
Omaha’s oldest old-school barber is peering at my beard, unimpressed.
It is nice that it’s shaved up tight, not one of those bushy things the kids favor nowadays, Fred Piccolo says as he leans forward to examine it. But the bottom of the beard, that’s the problem.
“It’s gotta go to the bottom of the jawline,” the barber growls as he takes his pointer finger and mentally shaves up the bottom of my beard a half-inch. I nod. Who am I to argue?
Fred Piccolo cuts hair at what is believed to be the oldest barbershop in Omaha, a barbershop that has outlasted two economic meltdowns, the shuttering of every other barbershop in Little Italy, the metamorphosis of Little Italy itself and even those longhair hippies who tried to kill off barbershops with their longhair ways.
Piccolo’s Barber Shop has been here so long, in fact, that barbershops have fallen out of favor and then returned to fashion, like Chuck Taylor sneakers or your grandpa’s record collection. Barbershops are back, I tell him. Barbers are hip. “Really?” asks Fred Piccolo.
Here at Piccolo’s Barber Shop, they don’t do hip, at least not on purpose. Here there are black-and-white photos on the walls of kids crying after their first haircut, and a yellowed photo of a smiling Joe DiMaggio, and a bunch of snapshots of long-gone Omaha Italians whose last names you recognize — Caniglia, Amato, Orsi and, of course, Piccolo.
Here, in a building built just after the Civil War ended, you sit in two barber chairs that look like they could be in a museum. You stare up at a stenciled sign listing the prices: $13 for a cut, $1 extra for a flattop.
And here at Piccolo’s Barber Shop you find an 82-year-old man who cuts hair like his Sicilian-born father before him. Just like a Piccolo has on most every day since the day this barbershop opened 82 years ago.
“I only take cash,” Fred Piccolo says. “Or a check if I know you.”
In 1957, after returning to Omaha, Fred did what he thought he would never do. He took over the second barber’s chair in his father’s shop.
It’s a slow Friday morning,
which is good because it gives Fred Piccolo time to tell you a story, then another, then a dozen more. It gives him time to invite you into a forgotten world that still exists inside this clean, well-lit shop.
It began, 82 years ago, when a young Sicilian immigrant named Joe Piccolo decided to follow his American dream. The banks had no interest in giving him a loan, so he went to a distant relative — a young grocer, also named Joe Piccolo — and asked for $2,000.
Come back on Monday, the grocer said, even though it was the middle of the Great Depression. I will have your money. Pay me back when you can.
Piccolo’s Barber Shop opened near 10th and Center, right down the street from Vito Caniglia’s barbershop, and shops run by Old Man Turco and Mr. Monaco and Manzanella and a dozen other barbers clustered in Little Italy. Joe Piccolo made a name for himself in this crowded marketplace by working hard, six days a week, pretty much any time someone needed a shave or a trim.
Fred Piccolo never meant to follow in his father’s footsteps. He graduated from Central High and took a few classes at Omaha University. He spent his Saturday nights drag-racing muscle cars down 10th Street and spent a night in jail when Judge Lynch, one of his father’s customers, got tired of him showing up in his courtroom. He became a dental technician, joined the Navy and ended up taking care of Marines’ molars at Parris Island.
But in 1957, after returning to Omaha, he did what he thought he would never do. He took over the second barber’s chair in his father’s shop.
He cut his friends’ hair and kids’ hair and the hair of customers his dad passed his way. “He gave me the people he didn’t like,” Fred says, grinning.
He perfected the flattop and the businessman’s trim and began to specialize in cutting wavy Sicilian-American hair into a stylish pompadour.
And for five years, then 10, then 15, this worked beautifully. The shop was full every day, enough customers for two barbers, and on Saturday mornings and again on Mondays they would pile in. When the five or six chairs in the waiting area were full, the men waiting sat on stools. When the stools were full, they perched on the windowsill.
They talked boxing. They talked about the neighborhood. They told stories about their children, their bookies, their pasts and futures.
“Some guys, I would see them at weddings, funerals and at the barbershop,” Fred says. “When you are a barber, you have a lot of friends.”
Fred cuts the hair of customer of 48 years, Harold Sivertson, of Omaha. (Photos by Brendan Sullivan)
“Some guys I would see them at weddings, funerals and at the barbershop,” Fred says. “When you are a barber, you have a lot of friends.”
Just then a customer walks in.
Fred throws a red-and-white smock over him and gets out his comb and razor and goes to work as he continues to talk about the old days.
The customer, Ken Wilwerding, has been coming here for years, because it’s near Gavilon, where he works, and because Fred gives him a good cut in 10 or 12 minutes.
“I used to go to a younger guy, but he took too long,” Ken says.
“My dad could do them in five or seven minutes,” Fred says.
The first signs of trouble came in the 1970s, Fred says as he snips away at Ken’s hair with sure, rapid strokes. The sons of his customers started growing their hair longer. They bought electric razors and shaved their own beards. They stopped wanting haircuts. They started wanting hairstyles.
Fred realized things had changed one day when he dropped off his wife, Annie, at her beauty salon. He looked inside and saw a young man he knew. The young man read a magazine as his hair dried under one of the salon’s hair dryers.
“A hair dryer!” Fred says, as if he still can’t believe it. “At the beauty salon!”
Joe Piccolo retired, and then so did Old Man Turco. Vito Caniglia passed away, and his family closed his shop. Manzanella took a different job. Mr. Monaco’s two sons moved to California.
It happened slowly, Fred thinks, but it still felt odd when he looked up one day and realized that he was the only old-school barber still open in Little Italy. His own customer base dwindled. No one perched on the stools or the windowsill anymore, waiting for a haircut.
But here is a funny thing about trends: Sometimes, if you are bullheaded enough, you can ignore them. You can ignore the fact that the world has changed, and wait until it changes again.
Fred still had a loyal base of doctors and lawyers and roofers and bookies, even if there were fewer each year. He still came in each morning, laid out his equipment and waited for his first customer of the day.
“I got used to the waiting,” he says. “People will come when they want a haircut. If they don’t, they won’t come. You have to be patient.”
Seen through the front window of Piccolo’s Barber Shop in Omaha’s Little Italy, barber Fred Piccolo cuts the hair of his first customer of the day, Hank Janssen. The shop was opened by Fred’s father in 1934, and Fred has been cutting hair there since 1957. (Photos by Brendan Sullivan)
He stayed patient as the 80s became the 90s
became the 21st century. A couple of years ago, Fred Piccolo finally stopped working full time — he felt like he deserved some days off after more than a half-
century of 50-hour workweeks. But he still opened the shop on Monday, Friday and Saturday mornings, the prime haircutting hours, and he still cut hair pretty similarly to how his father first learned to cut it in Sicily early in the 20th century.
He did this so long that barbershops came back into style.
Drive west from here on Farnam Street and you will run into The Surly Chap Barbers, where young men have been known to wait hours for a cut or shave — where the waits finally grew so ridiculously long that Surly Chap bowed to convenience and started offering appointments. In Benson there is The Beard & Mane, and in west Omaha at Scissors & Scotch you can get a trim and then enjoy “a complimentary, hand-crafted cocktail in our private lounge.”
So barbershops are back, and when I tell Fred Piccolo this he seems to think that’s nice. I do not tell him the prices at these new barbershops, because I do not want to give an old barber a heart attack.
“I only take cash. Or a check if I know you.”
Piccolo’s Barber Shop will not be offering appointments or hand-crafted cocktails any time soon. But Fred Piccolo will keep cutting hair, whoever wants it cut, young or old, Italian or Irish or Mexican-American, anyone who walks through his door.
It is a couple of minutes past noon now on a Friday, a couple of minutes past close, and Fred has long finished with his lone customer this morning. He takes the red-and-white smocks, flaps them into the air, and in a single, fluid motion drapes them over the backs of the barber chairs. He flips the open sign in the window to closed. He pulls the chain on the overhead lights, and he pulls the front door shut behind him.
Omaha’s oldest old school barber pulls the front door shut behind him, jiggles the handle to make sure it’s locked and trudges toward his car.
Tomorrow is a Saturday. He will be back tomorrow. Piccolo’s Barber Shop opens at 8 a.m., just as it always has.
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