little off the top: Richard DiCristofero and customer.
Photo: Martin Benjamin
Today, Hair Tomorrow
91 years of operation, Schenectady’s Wedgeway Barbershop
has weathered several changes of ownership and the vicissitudes
of a shifting local economy—not to mention the Beatles
By John Rodat
the photograph, the men look stern and official. They are
unsmiling, and two have their arms crossed tightly against
their outthrust chests. On the far right, the youngest-looking
one does have a mild, uncertain grin and a wandering gaze,
but it’s as if he has not yet caught on that this is a formal
moment. It’s 1926, and by the looks of it, barbering is
very serious business.
In the shop that houses that photo, though, the tone is
considerably lighter. Owner Richard DiCristofero is deftly
employing a straight razor to tidy the sideburns of one
customer, and prodding another to recall the first year
he came to be barbered in Schenectady’s Wedgeway Barbershop.
older than dirt, so he may not remember,” DiCristofero says
in an aside, shooting a playfully conspiratorial look over
the top of his lowered glasses. “C’mon, Rudy, if you could
come up with a year, none of us would be offended.”
Rudy shifts his weight in his chair, adopts a thoughtful
expression and glances upward. After a contemplative and
dramatic pause, he begins, “It was 1865, the year the war
concluded . . .”
Around him, the folks gathered in the shop—the waiting customers
and the other barbers—laugh.
Rudy’s self-deprecatory exaggeration notwithstanding, there’s
a kernel of truth to his comment. The Wedgeway Barbershop,
though not yet open for business during the War Between
the States, has been around for quite a while; longer, it’s
reputed, than any other barbershop in the area. Opened in
1912 by Joseph Vacco (whose grandson, DiCristofero says,
is now the local cardiologist), the Wedgeway has been in
continuous operation ever since.
DiCristofero’s own entrée into the world of barbering is
described with what seems typical solemnity: “Well, I did
a great job trimming the hedges, which was my sideline when
I was in school—I was one of 11 kids and we had to work
for our wares—and I thought I could give a pretty good flattop.”
Added to an innate talent for trimming unruly growth, there
was the advice of his dad, who told him that he had better
pick up a trade if he wasn’t going to attend college. (“I
just didn’t care to go to college,” DiCristofero notes bluntly.)
So, he began cutting hair aboard ship while in the Navy,
and when he returned home to his native Schenectady in 1960,
he secured an apprenticeship at another shop. After two
years of honing his craft, DiCristofero went to work at
the Wedgeway under the shop’s fourth owner, Patsy Gallo
(who wielded his clippers there for nearly 60 years).
In the early years of his tenure at the Wedgeway, DiCristofero
says the shop’s custom was thriving. This was Schenectady
pre-exodus, when GE employed somewhere in the neighborhood
of 50,000 people. “Nary a lunch hour went by when it wasn’t
standing-room only,” he recalls.
Street, too, was mobbed,” Rudy pipes in, as he heads to
and night, people were out shopping or out to dinner—it
was bustling,” adds Gene (who’s already had his hair cut
and is now waiting for Rudy, with whom he regularly visits
The boom was not to last, however. Even before GE began
downsizing, the men’s hair-care industry in general took
a hit. In 1964, barbershops experienced the equivalent of
Black Monday: “When the Beatles came in 1964,” DiCristofero
says, “it started a 14-year depression in the business.
Barbers had to become reeducated or lose their business
to hairdressers or beauticians. And a lot of barbers were
resistant, thought they knew it all. You know, you can’t
teach an old dog new tricks—and that’s where the unisex
trend came in.”
As if the longer hair of the Fab Four wasn’t enough to throw
traditional barbers into a panic, soon thereafter the disco
era popularized the Afro, and men began seeking out perms.
The changing styles—coupled with Schenectady’s decreasing
population—made for dark days for area barbers. But DiCristofero,
who bought the shop from his predecessor in 1972, is philosophical
when recalling the downturn in business.
all lasted until about 1978,” he says. “But everything runs
in cycles. Now, everyone wants it high and tight, or they
want their head shaved. Real traditional cuts.”
He pauses for a moment, interrupting Rudy’s facial massage,
and gestures with the hand strapped into the vibrating motor
toward Gene: “Of course, there are guys like that who’ve
always gotten haircuts from 1957.”
Gene nods compliantly, and DiCristofero continues, “So,
now, people are coming back to the barbershop so they don’t
have to pay the obnoxious prices at beauticians and hairdressers.”
For the record, a basic men’s haircut at the Wedgeway will
set you back a mere 10 bucks.
From his recumbent position, Rudy—slightly flushed from
the recent application of hot towels—rejoins, “I remember
when a haircut cost 25 cents.”
So, the mood in the Wedgeway is upbeat. The tide has turned
for the industry, and DiCristofero and his companions say
they are optimistic about Schenectady’s prospects as well.
In any case—tonsorial trends and economic-development projects
aside—DiCristofero says that things at the Wedgeway will
remain much the same: “We pride ourselves on providing basic,
personalized, friendly service. By the second time someone
comes in here, we know their name, we know what cut they
want. People are looking for familiarity, and we’ve got
a good record of very little turnover.”
Though the newest addition to the staff at the Wedgeway
has been there a scant nine months, the other two barbers
have each been there 10 years or more; and the shop’s current
owner says that after working there himself for more than
40 years, he still can’t imagine hanging up his shears.
only way I’d sell would be on the condition that I get to
work part-time,” he says. “I’ve always worked with the public,
from delivering papers when I was a kid to working here.
It becomes your life’s blood.”
As DiCristofero renews Rudy’s massage, another customer
enters the Wedgeway and, by way of introduction, DiCristofero
says, “This is the guy who gives me cooking tips.”
you should have had the meal I had last night,” the newcomer
says, as if picking up a conversation already in progress.
have been better than the one I had.”
yeah? Just to start, let me tell you, you didn’t find any
iceberg lettuce in this salad, and the dressing . . .”