A Neighborhood Gathering Place for Eight Decades
    Tony Crisafio on the  steps of Frank’s Place,  the family barber shop,  circa 1930s-40s.

    Tony Crisafio on the steps of Frank’s Place, the family barber shop, circa 1930s-40s.

    The neighborhood barber shop has always held a special place in American culture. For more than 80 years, Frank’s Barber Shop on Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville wasn’t just a place to get a haircut; it was a neighborhood gathering place where people of all cultures, classes, and ages came together to laugh, exchange ideas, get advice, and talk about the news of the day. When Francis Crisafio pulled out his camera and started documenting the goings-on at Frank’s in 2003, he had no idea how it would impact him as an artist and a son. An examination of longevity, aging, character, and calling, his project—“Samson’s Hair Repaired”—documented his father Tony’s life as a barber with photographs, text, video, and sound.

    From the days when cattle were herded down Penn Avenue to the age of the internet, brothers Frank and Tony Crisafio saw and heard it all. One of Lawrenceville’s first longest-running businesses, Frank’s Barber Shop was established in 1929, during the Great Depression. “My grandparents were Italian immigrants,” says Francis. “They never learned to speak English. My grandfather worked in a steel mill and was injured, so they knew their boys had to do something different.”

    As was necessary for many families at the time, Frank and Tony had to quit school and work to support the family. Rosa and Antonio renovated the living room of their home and turned it into a barber shop. The family continued to live in the rest of the building. In 1934 at the age of 16, Tony joined Frank and began cutting the hair of mill workers, doctors, cabbies, and everyone in between.

    Frank Crisafio, Tony’s older brother, circa 1930s-40s.

    Frank Crisafio, Tony’s older brother, circa 1930s-40s.

    Tony and Frank labored long hours six days a week cutting hair and giving shaves at the barber shop, also known as Frank’s Place. Says Francis, “Frank and Tony did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do. My grandparents were old school. They told them this is what you need to do to support the family, and they did it.” Tony and Frank worked side-by-side until Frank retired at 90. Tony continued to work as a barber until the day he passed away of a heart attack at age 95 on November 7, 2014, just one month shy of working as a barber for 80 years.

    “My dad was fond of recounting his childhood memories of growing up in Lawrenceville and working here. His customers were devoted to him. People didn’t come just for a cheap haircut. Tony was a confidante, friend, and even psychologist for many,” laughs Francis. Melissa Mariano, curator of the Italian-American Collection at the Heinz History Center, recorded hours of discussions with Tony, who reflected on the eight decades he worked and lived in Lawrenceville and the changes he witnessed from the Great Depression through the Great Recession. After his passing, Francis donated the barber pole, signage, and other barber shop fixtures to the Heinz History Center.

    Tony had a sharp memory and loved reminiscing. He had a penchant for vivid descriptions. He and his pals would talk about the wild old days of the Strip and he recounted the vibrant images of produce trucks heading to the Heinz factory, filled with tomatoes so ripe that the juice spilling out turned Penn Avenue red.

    “I think Tony’s story is the quintessential immigrant story,” says Francis. “When Italians came here they weren’t welcome, so he understood what it was like to feel like an outsider. Regardless of origin, immigrants stuck together. When the barbershop first opened, you could find groups of immigrants of different ethnicities in each corner of the shop, speaking to each other in their own languages.” Many customers came to see Tony and Frank for decades. “There was Dolly,” says Francis, “one of the only women who came to get her hair cut short. She knew my dad for 30 years. Another customer, Wayne, had Tony cut his hair for 50 years, which he said was the longest relationship he’d ever had,” laughs Francis. “My dad had a gruff exterior, but he was a man of great empathy. He had been through a lot and knew what it was like to struggle.”

    Virginia, Frank’s wife, in a car in front of the shop, circa 1940s.

    Virginia, Frank’s wife, in a car in front of the shop, circa 1940s.

    Many Asian immigrants who lived and worked nearby frequented Frank’s Barber Shop as well. Francis recalls: “People loved him. Even if Tony couldn’t understand the language someone was speaking, he had an amazing talent for communicating with disenfranchised people who were struggling to belong. There was an Asian man who pushed his wife in a wheelchair all the way from East Liberty to get a haircut. They had an affinity for each other. They considered themselves Americans but outsiders.”

    Tony’s gruff side did come out once in a while. “My dad cut hair one way—his way,” laughs Francis. “The men’s hair trends of the 1960s weren’t good for business. There was a guy with really long hair who came in for a haircut. Tony asked him, “Why’d you wait so long? I can’t cut that.”

    After a series of heart attacks in his later years, Tony took some time off. Ryan Graham, now owner of Graham’s Barber Shop in Lawrenceville and someone who looked to Tony as a mentor, filled in while he was convalescing. However, Tony’s customers weren’t having it. After a month or two, one of his regulars tracked him down and told him he needed to get back to work—which he did, until his death in 2014. Today, 4043 Penn Avenue is home to a new salon called Hairsmith.

    Francis’s striking photographs capture the essence of Tony, Frank, and the barber shop itself, but it’s not just about telling their stories. Says Francis, “My father and I always banged heads. He’d ask me, ‘Why don’t you just do what you have to do to make a living instead of being an artist?’ The irony of it is that this project not only reconciled me with him but taught me how to be an artist in ways I hadn’t fully appreciated. It made me realize that Tony was the true artist.”

    Aleita Hermanowski is a freelance writer who grew up in the Strip working with her father at Hermanowski Wholesale. She lives in Bloomfield.
    Much thanks to Francis Crisafio for his valuable contribution to this articile (website: franciscrisafio.com; he can be reached at info@franciscrisafio.com).