‘Tony the barber’ — a fixture on Glenfield’s biggest street
Monday, December 4, 2017 | 11:00 AM
People in Glenfield call him “Tony the barber” — a fixture on the biggest street in one of the smallest towns in Allegheny County.
The shop, owned by Tony Calabrese, 76, has been on Kilbuck Street since 1969 — the last piece of a small business district that crumbled in the 1970s when the construction of Interstate 79 changed the landscape of the town. There used to be two chairs. Now there's one: $11 for a haircut, $2 extra for a beard trim.
“I never wanted to go anywhere else,” Calabrese says, looking down at a customer as he trims. “Why should I?”
After a decades-long decline, the number of barbers in the United States is projected to increase — by about 9 percent — by 2026, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. The rise of unisex salons and franchises might have contributed to the previous decline of the largely male-only traditional barbershops.
But not in Glenfield, population 200.
A steady stream of customers come in regularly
He's cut the heads of babies, their fathers, and their grandfathers. So did his father and brother — both barbers. His father started the business, began training “probably back in the 30s” he says, a spit down the road.
Kilbuck Street once was a hub in the community, where today there's just 90 households. But back in the day, there was a post office and restaurant along Kilbuck Street, and a commercial district along Route 65.
Black-and-white photos a customer gave him show the town before Route 65 was widened in the 1960s, pressing several businesses there to move.
Today, most of it is gone — except his shop. “They took the post office but left the mailbox,” he says, laughing.
In addition to regulars, people often return when they're back in town for a visit, lifetime resident Toni Autry, 80, said. Her now-late husband got his hair cut at Calabrese's shop — for nearly 50 years.
She called for Calabrese's help when she organized a Glenfield reunion; as she tried to find former residents, she knew many returned to get their hair cut while visiting, and that Calabrese might know how to contact people who left.
“The ‘who's who' of Glenfield goes to Tony,” Autry says, laughing. “He's in the public eye.”
Calabrese's commute is brief: He lives next door.
Inside the shop, a picture window in front of the single chair offers a clear view of Kilbuck Street; the scuffed linoleum floor is testament to a well-worn path taken by customers, visitors, and family.
The elder Calabrese bought a house, with a metal-covered garage, converting it in the 1960s to a barbershop. Tony the younger began in 1969, working with his brother in what was then a two-chair shop.
When his brother died, he took out one of the chairs.
He jokes he can't retire. There's no other barber in the town.
Janette Gics of Sewickley Heights has been bringing her son Johnny, 40, there for about 30 years. Tony knows just the blade to use, she says. And when Johnny jumps slightly — tired of the chair — Tony distracts him.
“You're doing good, John,” he said.
“It's a great little business here,” Gics said. “It hasn't changed. I always tell Tony we should put a little booth outside and sell meatball sandwiches.”
Another customer comes in as they chat. He says he's new — from out of town in Emsworth, he notes. His barber died. Calabrese attended barber school on Federal Street on the North Side, back when most towns had two or three such shops, catering to men.
Today, Calabrese notes, chain stores have mostly replaced the old-fashioned barber, the one who knows which blade each customer prefers, chats about the news of the day, and who knows your name.
Now, customers want more precision.
“I use more blades,” he says, noting he often remembers whether customers are a “2” or a “3.”
He's also borne witness to fads — which, he notes, pass.
“I've done them...don't get too many anymore,” he says.
Mostly people go back to a familiar style.
“All that stuff rubs off from the celebrities,” he says.
Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.