The sign at the Highland Square Barber Shop may state customers can line up for a hair cut beginning at 10:30 a.m., but sometimes “I may not get here until a quarter till,” said owner Mike Altomare.
That’s okay, because although the shop closes at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, Altomare was still working at 4 p.m. one weekend to accommodate customers who arrived before that time to a crowded waiting area.
It’s that kind of service folks have come to expect from their barber, who hung his shingle at 12 S. Highland Avenue 40 years ago back in 1972. He bought the business from a friend, who had the shop where Walgreens is now located next to the Highland Theater.
His customers are loyal, even coming from Canton and Massillon, said Altomare, whose been cutting hair since 1958.
“People ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ Altomare recalled. “Actually, I am retired. But this gives me a place to go, something to do. What am I going to do at home, look out the window?”
Before he got his own shop, Altomare worked with three barbers at a Wallhaven location, now a retail strip anchored by Caribou Coffee.
His shop is lined with photographs of family and travel destinations he and his wife, Clairene, who died in 2003, visited when they owned Specialty Travel. They hosted group tours to such exotic places as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Bali, as well as Pisa, Italy and other European cities.
The couple, who were married 37 years and had two children, Michael and Elisa, worked hard and kept busy, as they also owned Altomare’s Catering. Much like one would expect with a beautician or bartender, Altomare has been privy to lots of sharing throughout the decades.
“Oh, yesss….,” said Altomare. “Listen, there isn’t anything I haven’t heard; I’m kind of like a priest.”
The demographic of his customers ranges widely and includes women.
“I go from top to bottom,” Altomare said. “I cut hair for a 92-year-old whose come to me for more than 50 years, and I do first hair cuts. And some of my customers go back to Wallhaven days.”
As with any trade, the barber business has changed over the years, including how often people get a cut and the methods of modern-day barbers. And while “feelin’ groovy” was a mindset at one time, getting a hair cut was not.
“The hardest time for most of us who stayed in the business was the 1960s and early 70s because of the long hair,” Altomare said. “Then, beauty shops started taking men and giving them perms. And barbers weren’t equipped to do perms. That’s something I didn’t want to do, with all of the chemicals used at the time.”
When Altomare started out in the late 1950s, he said: “Men were very particular how they wanted to look, with perfect hairlines, and they dressed better. Today it doesn’t matter if your hair is neat. No one cares.”
Altomare spreads a frothy warm lather on a customer’s neck and uses a straight razor to get a clean neckline. Some of today’s practitioners he called “numbers barbers,” because everything they do “they put a clip on the clipper and run it over your head, whether it’s a No. 2 or 3. They can’t do it freehand.”
Hair cuts cost $12, and Altomare offers shampooing as well. At one point he made custom men’s hairpieces but concedes they were quite time consuming and the expectation was too high.
“A lot of people think when they get a hairpiece they’re going to look the way they did when they graduated from high school,” Altomare said half jokingly. Hair styles come and go but Altomare’s learned to listen to his customers.
“The important thing is to ask what they want, NOT what you want,” he says, “You just roll with it.”
And when Altomare, who works about 30 hours a week, needs his own hair cut, a barber friend stops by and they give each other one. With a friendly greeting and straight razor in hand, Altomare’s not about to stop stropping yet.
“I think the most rewarding thing is the friendships I’ve made,” he said. “Some of these people are like your family because you follow them through the good and bad times.”
Closed on Sundays and Wednesdays, the Highland Square Barber Shop can be reached at 330-253-4024.