By Larry Gordon
After 47 years of cutting hair on Central Avenue in Lawrence, Sal Brancaccio is giving it up, retiring, moving to Florida. No, the shop is not closing but rather was sold to Boris Rubinov who will be taking over the barbershop hub in Lawrence after Pesach in April 2018.
Until then, as you drive or pass by almost daily, you can still see Sal and his friend and assistant, Mel, doing their thing, gingerly and deliberately moseying around their respective barber chairs that resemble business-class seats in the old El Al 747 planes.
Sal insists that there is no one around in this area today who has his experience or expertise when it comes to cutting hair, which he has been doing for most of his adult life. He is well-acquainted with just about all his customers and rarely does he ever have to ask anyone how he wants his hair cut this time or, for that matter, anytime. He just knows.
Mothers and fathers come in to Your Haircutters on Central Avenue and don’t have to say anything other than hello–and their child’s hair gets cut to perfection.
Over the years, I have found it particularly fascinating how Sal schedules his vacations around the times of the year that Orthodox Jews do not usually cut their hair. To that end, he is sometimes closed for a good part of Sefirah which takes place after Pesach and gives him the opportunity to spend some time with family members in western Florida.
Then there is the period of the Three Weeks prior to Tishah B’Av, usually around the end of July and into August, which gives Sal and his wife a chance to go visit the old country–that is, Naples, Italy. Once there, he says, he relaxes and enjoys the sea, the great restaurants, and spending time with family members who never left the old country the way his parents did with him when he was a young child.
After two or three weeks, the shop opens again, and Sal is back along with Mel. He assumes his usual position, which means he is casually but with some earnestness revolving once again around that chair that he knows and loves, snipping away and delivering yet another perfect cut.
Unlike many other types of haircutting spots in our neighborhood, you do not just walk in to Sal’s place and wait your turn. At Your Haircutters, you do not enter without an appointment, and if you do you can get this look like, “Can I help you?” or “What are you doing here?”
Another thing I enjoy about getting my haircut at Sal’s is either stopping in when I’m walking by or just calling him on the phone and trying to make an appointment. It’s rare, but sometimes I’m standing there, having run an errand nearby, and I watch him looking up and down the columns in his appointment book until he starts shaking his head in the negative and says, “There’s nothing; I don’t have anything.”
At that point, I tend to look at him with some surreal disbelief and say, “Sal, I don’t need a root canal, just a haircut–a simple, ten-minutes-maximum haircut.”
It’s usually at that point that he stares down at the book a bit more intently before issuing his verdict: “OK, tomorrow at 11:45.” Now, while I am grateful that he squeezed me into his tight schedule, midmorning on a weekday is a difficult time for a haircut. So a few years ago on a whim I tried the following approach in order to arrange what at some point is a necessary haircut.
One day I just unthinkingly blurted out, “What time are you opening tomorrow; I mean, what time is your first appointment?” The first time I did this he said that his first appointment the next day was at 7:00 a.m. “OK,” I said, “In that case I will be here at 6:45.”
Surprisingly, at the time he did not say no. I have driven by the storefront numerous times early in the morning on my way to shul or somewhere. Often I noticed Sal just standing at the side of his barber chair, sometimes with his hands on his hips, looking out of the storefront window. At those times I thought to myself, “Well, hey, there’s Sal, standing there; not a bad time for a haircut.” So the sunrise barbershop appointment was created.
All of us grew up getting regular haircuts and found our parents, or ourselves at times, painstakingly trying to explain to the barber about the Jewish law requirement of payos. That is not shaving or cutting the hair past a certain point on the side of your face about parallel to the middle of the ear. “Don’t cut below here; don’t cut above there…” With Sal, no explanation along those (hair) lines is required.
The people I have spoken to about Sal retiring and moving down south at first react by saying that it just cannot be so. Sal is an institution on Central Avenue in Lawrence. Some ask, “How can he leave us? What are we going to do?”
So I have to say this about that. Just like many of the readers, I have been taking regular haircuts for a long time. Usually you are just in and out in a few minutes. Most of the time you sit there silently, glancing up at yourself in these wall-to-wall mirrors, sometimes even taking a moment to use the mirror-around-the-room dÃ©cor to take one of those rare peeks at what is going on in the back of your head. You know, how long your hair is back there, whether you have lost more hair since the last time you were there, and so on.
I don’t know if it is something that comes along with being a professional haircutter, but it seems to me that it is helpful if you are engaging, talkative, and a conversationalist like Sal. For me, anyway, sitting for those ten or fifteen minutes every few weeks in Sal’s chair is not just about being well-groomed, but it is also frequently an enlightening experience.
The good thing is that we share many conservative political opinions about many of the issues of the day. I cannot imagine what it is like if you are sitting in that chair and admit that you vote Democrat or harbor some of those philosophies. I mean, I’m sure it is fine but I am also assuming that in those circumstances there is more silence and a bit more glancing up at yourself in the mirror.
When Sal first told me that he was selling the shop and moving to Florida, I was a little stunned. I asked him how in good conscience he can do that to us after all these years, but I was only being partially serious. And I had to admit here that our conversation was an emotional one. If you think that this change or adjustment is going to be difficult for us, the customers, I can tell you that it is an even more emotional and difficult move for Sal.
He has been helping us prepare for Shabbos and yom tov for almost five decades, trimming and cutting so that we look and feel our best as we head into our special days. Often when I’m in his chair in the early morning, the phone rings and I can only hear Sal’s side of the conversation that goes like this: “Yes, rabbi, anytime rabbi, look forward to seeing you,” and so on.
When I ask Sal which rabbi was on the phone, time and again it is one of the most prominent rabbinical leaders in the community who trusts and knows Sal, and because he can get an appointment, he knows that there won’t be a number of students or congregants sitting there watching the rabbi get his haircut.
One of those rabbis, Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, said, “When I moved to town many years ago, I heard about the barbershop that makes appointments! To a kid who grew up in Williamsburg, this was very funny. You make appointments to go to the doctor, not the barber. After waiting and waiting and waiting by the local barbers in town, it was time to try this fancy barbershop. And you know what? I have not left Sal since. I have no idea why he is leaving me. He is a class act and a real mensch. He knows the world and understands the world. But most of all, he cares about all humankind. We will miss him bigtime.”
Alex Werczberger manages Seasons which is directly across the street from Your Haircutters. “Sal is a good friend and a wonderful man,” he said. “What is not known about him is that he is very committed to our community and quietly does some important charitable work,” Alex says.
Sal, we wish it weren’t so, but we respect your decision though we hate to see you go. I suggested to Sal last week that perhaps he would consider coming back to New York once a month or so to give haircuts. We both laughed at the suggestion. But I wasn’t really kidding; maybe there is something to talk about.
Sal, good luck. We are going to miss you.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.