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A little off the top: Richard DiCristofero and customer. Photo: Martin Benjamin

Hair Today, Hair Tomorrow
In 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

In 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.

“He’s 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.

“State Street, too, was mobbed,” Rudy pipes in, as he heads to the chair.

“Day 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 Wedgeway).

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.

“That 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.

“The 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.”

“Oh, you should have had the meal I had last night,” the newcomer says, as if picking up a conversation already in progress.

“Couldn’t have been better than the one I had.”

“Oh yeah? Just to start, let me tell you, you didn’t find any iceberg lettuce in this salad, and the dressing . . .”

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