At 87, Gino Stagi still cuts mean 'close back-and-sides'


December 20, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

The big, old-fashioned red, white and blue barber's pole twirls slowly on the front of the two-story Formstone-faced building on Ritchie Highway.

It means Gino Stagi is on the job, as he has been since 1926.

And about the only thing Mr. Stagi has changed in the 64 years that have made him a Brooklyn Park institution is that a toothpick hTC has replaced the omnipresent long cigars that for decades dropped ash all over customers.

Wedged in the corner of his mouth, the splinter waggles as Mr. Stagi tells, in a strong Italian accent, how he started barbering for his grandfather at 9, came to America at 16 to see the "streets paved with gold" and has spent most of the last 64 years keeping Brooklyn Park men -- and a few women -- looking neat.

He'll be 88 next May 23 and still works a full five-day week, with Wednesday off. That's when he drives his 1965 copper-toned Cadillac to bowl duckpins in Glen Burnie, trying to add to the 29 trophies he has arranged on shelves above the mirrors.

Mr. Stagi and his wife, the former Elsie Spacek, 82, have been married for 65 years and live in the one-story bungalow he built on Third Avenue, behind the barbershop.

"I still have my own hair," he said, patting his wavy white mane. "My own teeth, at least most of them," he added, grimacing. "No hearing aid. I don't wear glasses when I work. I have no high blood pressure, no cholesterol problem. I'm fine."

"And my hand is still steady as a rock," he said, holding out a wicked-looking straight razor.

In the old days, he said, men bought a shave every few days but haircuts only every couple of months. "That was before the safety razor and men started shaving at home. Now they get haircuts," Mr. Stagi said.

This is a barbershop, not a styling salon. Men come for a haircut -- many of them in the crew-cut style Mr. Stagi says is making a comeback. You could probably get a perm, but the request would draw funny looks, especially since most of the customers are older men who have come to Mr. Stagi for decades and want a neat "close back and sides."

"I got young people who come in here who never saw a real barbershop before," Mr. Stagi said.

David Deans, 85, of Glen Burnie, had just returned from his annual visit to his native Scotland and stopped at Mr. Stagi's for a trim. Damning Mr. Stagi with faint praise and a laugh, Mr. Deans said, "He gives great haircuts. Better than the Army."

Ed Sanders, 56, of Brooklyn Park, came in to get his flat-top smoothed off. "I've been coming to Gino for 35 years. His price is one reason, and he does a good job."

"I only charge $3.50," Mr. Stagi said. "Nobody charges less than that. I started at 35 cents, then went down to a quarter during the Depression. We don't rob the people. I own this building so I have no rent. This is an old-fashioned barbershop. Other places, where they have high rents, cut hair, call it styling and charge $10 or more."

Customers still wait on the twisted iron chairs with oak seats that have been in place around the walls since the three-chair shop opened.

Customers have a choice of National Geographic or the various pigeon-racing magazines brought in by Will Spacek, Mr. Stagi's brother-in-law and shop colleague for 44 years.

A couple of green snake plants and a bowl of philodendron soak up sunlight in the front window. But the rays are fading the photograph of President John F. Kennedy propped in one corner.

"That's been there since he was president; I really liked him," Mr. Stagi said.

Beside the two-seat shoeshine stand is a carved marble table, the base and top in white stone and the pedestal in streaked green.

"I carved that more than 50 years ago," Mr. Stagi said. "I'm from Pietrasanta, near Carrara, where Michelangelo got his marble. Everyone around there learns to carve in marble."

On the wall hangs a fading photograph of a dusty street of old stone buildings and a church. It is marked "The Town Where I Was Born."

The shoeshine stand goes unused these days "because nobody wears shoes any more, just tennis shoes," Mr. Stagi said, "and we put the TV set on the sink because no one gets shampoos now."

"We don't even use the hair dryer," Mr. Spacek chimed in. "We went to styling school, but we don't do much of that. People grow their hair long and call it styled, but it's just long hair."

Mr. Stagi's story is typical of European immigrants of that era. He was orphaned at 6 and was reared by his sister, Noemi Girlando, until she left for the United States; he remained with his grandfather.

At 16, Mr. Stagi paid 435 lire, about $3.50, for a 26-day passage on an old passenger ship, and he has the framed receipt on the wall. A friend of his sister met him at the dock in New York, Mr. Stagi said, "so I never went through Ellis Island.

I didn't know I was supposed to. I didn't find out until years afterward that I was really illegal," Mr. Stagi said.

Mr. Stagi said he arrived at Penn Station at noon Jan. 11, 1920, "in a Palm Beach suit, yellow shoes and a green hat, nothing else, no overcoat. There was 3 feet of snow on the ground, and people looked at me like I was crazy."

He eventually reached his sister's South Baltimore home and began life in America. Mrs. Girlando died last year at age 97, he said.

During a recent interview with Mr. Stagi, a stream of customers kept he and his partner busy. The center chair remained vacant, however, because Denny Stagi, Mr. Stagi's son and a part-time barber, was on duty as a city police agent.

"He's retiring next year so he'll be here more after that," Mr. Stagi said.

Speaking of retirement, Mr. Stagi said, "Maybe I'll retire when I reach 90 -- or maybe I won't."

"He'd go crazy if he retired. He wouldn't know what to do with himself," Mr. Spacek said.

"I think he's right," Mr. Stagisaid.

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