Gus Jammalo gives Gene Kemp a trim, the last one his well-known barbership. Jammalo says, at 87, it's time for him to go fishing and spend time with his family.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Surrounded by family, Augustine "Gus" Jammalo fired up his clippers for the last time at his Union Street barbershop, ending his career how he started it.
Longtime customer Gene Kemp walked through the doors Thursday morning not only to get a quick trim but to see a longtime friend who has been cutting his hair since the 1950s.
"Get as much as you can. Trim what you can," a now bald Kemp laughed as he stepped into the barbershop.
After a firm handshake and a quiet moment, Jammalo sat Kemp down in the old barber's chair and, without missing a beat, got to work.
"I remember it was in August," Jammalo said. "This little skinny kid came in."
Jammalo, a North Adams native, started cutting hair in 1957 after returning home from the Army. A 13-year-old Kemp was his first customer.
Since then, Jammalo has cut a lot of hair but now in his late 80s, he believes it is time to hang up his clippers.
"I was looking out the window one day and I thought, 'I want to go fishing,'" Jammalo said. "I said I'm done; I think it is time."
Jammalo's family gathered in the small shop to witness, in many ways, a historic haircut. They shared memories over the sound of the buzzing clippers and laughed as Jammalo shot quips across the room.
The barber said he has been cutting hair this long for a few reasons: One is he simply loves cutting hair but another more subtle reason is the people he has met over the years — the friendships, the conversations.
"I will miss the people," he said. "I have known a lot of people."
The feeling is mutual, and Kemp said that is what kept him coming back.
"He is a kind person and is knowledgeable on a lot of subjects," Kemp said. "When you come to the barbershop everyone gathers here to shoot the boloney. His sign says, 'where good friends meet' and that is so true."
But Kemp has Jammolo to thank for a lot more than robust conversation.
"What can I say, the guy saved my life," he said.
Jammalo said during a haircut some years ago he spotted something funny on Kemp's nose
"I said he should get that checked out," he said.
What Jammalo spotted was cancerous and the barber's keen observation gave Kemp a very critical heads up and prompted him to call the doctor.
Jammalo and Kemp went back and forth and talked about old times. Kemp said his mom would give him $2 and that would get him a haircut and a day at the movie theater.
Although Jammalo approached this last haircut as any haircut, it was heavier. Old memories flooded back as he thought more and more about each snip.
He remembered one time someone came in for a haircut and left in handcuffs.
"I was cutting this guy's hair, and the cops came in handcuffed him. They took him out the door," he said. "They arrested him, and he had half a haircut ... Never got paid for the haircut and probably never will."
Over the years, he's probably heard more than he should.
"This kid came in and told me he had a secret. He said when his dad goes to work, mom has a boyfriend that sneaks in the back," he said. "I told him, 'oh boy I dont want to hear that.'"
He even recalled a special customer.
"A big tall guy came in said he plays tennis. I said I play, too," Jammalo said. "He told me he was the best tennis player in the world."
Later that week, he saw the passing customer on television competing in the U.S. Open.
"Roger Federer. He was just passing by," he said. "He gave me a $100 tip and walked out the door."
Jammalo's shop is eclectic and much of his equipment has been with him since the beginning. He said his barber chair, which he purchased for $30, is well over 100 years old. He proudly pointed to his vintage barber capes, still in use, as he snipped away with his special left-handed scissors.
He talked about the history of his shop that moved from River Street to Eagle Street. He said he even spent some time cutting hair in Readsboro, Vt.
He reminisced over different haircuts and styles.
"Crew cuts, flat tops, side things — some guys have a strip here and no hair on the sides," Jammalo said referring to the mohawk haircut. "I have seen them all."
His specialty was the flat top.
"The toughest is a flattop. I am good at it," he said.
He said the notorious mop top that came in the wake of the British Invasion almost put him out of business
"The Beatles came along and no one got hair cuts so I started a variety store on Eagle Street and sold groceries for a while," he said.
Jammalo's shop is adorned with many of his paintings. The self-taught artist has books of his various works for customers to look at and several hang in Clarksburg Town Hall.
One special image sits in his back office: a framed photo of his painting of Frank Sinatra. Jammalo said he sent Sinatra the original painting and received a letter back from the Chairman of the Board's secretary that hangs in his office.
"I saw Frank five times. I love the guy. He did it his way," Jammalo said.
And you could say Jammalo has done it his way as well. The barbershop/art gallery/coin collection is certainly one of a kind.
The phone rang throughout the morning interrupting the haircut. Folks were calling trying to make appointments, others just wanted to say hi.
Customer Tony Sarkis who came in for a trim earlier said Jammalo has been cutting his hair since he was 8 years old.
"Gus had a big full head of black hair then," he said. "We always had a good conversation, and he gave me a lot of advice. I am an independent business person, and we talked about keeping priorities right in work and life."
Jammalo's son Tom said he not only saw his dad as his father but as a successful small-business owner. He said his dad's shop kept the family going.
"Growing up I never had a sense of having a recession. People always had to get their hair cut," he said. "Growing up we never struggled."
Jammalo attributed his professional and personal success to a motto he lives by: "Be fair, be honest, don't lie, and don't spend more than you make."
Jammalo said he feels great well into his 80s. Every morning he does 40 pushups to start his day.
He said he looks forward to having more time to fish, golf, and spend time with his family. He said he plans to do some traveling — specifically to Las Vegas and Aruba.
Jammalo cleaned up Kemp's neck and carefully took the cape off him.
Kemp smiled and handed Jammalo a few dollars. Jammalo pushed the money away except for $1.
He grabbed a pen and asked Kemp to sign the final transaction of Gus' Barbershop.
Jammalo cleaned up the seat one final time as he had done thousands of times before. He smiled at his family as he put his clippers away.