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Gino Colafella: The Mayor’s Barber with Big Shoes To Fill

After his lifetime partner officially retired, North End barber Gino Colafella talks of his shop and the neighborhood that, over 40 years, has passed in front his eyes and reflected itself in his mirrors.

“In a few months I lost both the mayor of Boston and the mayor of Hanover street,” says Gino Colafella, holding a black and white picture from twenty years ago of him and former business partner Johnny (“Shoes” – a nickname earned for being a shoemaker’s son) Cammarata giving a newly elected Thomas Menino his first haircut as a mayor of Boston.

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He laughs, but for sure Gino is not having fun. Although the two people he speaks about are alive and well, and he knows he will still see them often, they both recently retired : the former has actually announced he decided not to run, come November, for the fifth time as a mayor of Boston. Chances are, however, he will still be Gino’s customer. The latter (whose title of “mayor of Hanover street” is only symbolic yet it expresses perfectly his role in the neighborhood) will also come by the barber shop he owned and run with Gino for thirty years – only, no longer as a partner. And this, for Gino, is no laughing matter.

“After thirty years as co-owners and ten more as co-workers I knew not only what he was gong to say next, but what he was actually thinking.” Together Johnny and Gino (which is also – still – the official name of the business) have made their barber shop on Hanover street an iconic hangout, where the daily life of the North End (one the few Italian neighborhoods in the country still worthy of this adjective), its current residents, and its many returning ones would be discussed, analyzed and dissected daily, along with politics , current events and , really, everything under the sun. More often than not, the commentary would be either in Italian or in some forgotten dialect. And always, (always!) deeply entertaining. “If this were a TV studio Johnny would be the anchorman and I’d do sports and weather … we each had our own space. It just worked.”

Often, the shop did turn into a TV studio, or a photography one, as – while the changing nature of the neighborhood around it reflected itself in the barbers’ mirrors – news networks, magazines and newspapers (including the National Geographic) took turns in featuring this couple of high – spirited, joke-cracking barbers and their hub. In fact the mayor himself became a customer thanks to a picture the Boston Herald published on its front page the day after his first election. It showed Johnny and Ginos’ window with a big sign saying: “Bravo Menino!”

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It all started in 1971, when Gino, an apprentice fresh form barber school, walked into Johnny’s Shop on Prince street, a few blocks from where he lived. He came to America in 1967 at age 17, from Sant’Eufemia a Maiella a small town in the mountains of Abruzzo in search of adventure and, like many in his generation, a better future. “Immigrants would return to the village with Cadillacs and fancy cameras,” recalls Gino, now an athletic, slender, 61 year-old, who still plays soccer on weekends, “but as soon as we got off the ship we realized roads were not paved with gold at all … actually they were black with asphalt, like everywhere else.” His American “adventure” began in Pittsburgh where some relatives of his lived, but he soon found out that jobs in the steel mills were reserved to American citizens. He then moved to Boston and after a few attempts at jobs he did not like, advised by a fellow Abruzzese/Bostonian already in the business, he found his calling: barber for men and hairstylist for women – which by the way was also his father’s profession back in Italy.

He has been one ever since, and, given the way he talks about it, he is far from tired of it. “Not only every client is a different cut,” he says with a sparkle in his eyes, “but is also a different conversation, a different world that opens up to you.” At the beginning, he worked in different areas of town, but after a while, as his collaboration with Johnny intensified, he ended up working full time in his North End shop; then in 1981, after the building burned down, they moved together to the Hanover street “room with a view” everyone learned to know and love. Gino definitely loves it: “In other places downtown, people tend to keep to themselves; on the contrary, here even first timers feel at ease and free to open up and engage in conversations with total strangers … we create the right atmosphere for it.”

He uses the present tense, but there is no “we” anymore. Even Johnny’s chair is gone and for those (yours truly included) familiar with the place, the empty space in front of the second mirror looks enormous. Yet Gino has every intention to fill that space with someone (preferably Italian, he says) who might help keep that atmosphere alive. Location will definitely help. “This neighborhood has changed dramatically, “ he reckons, “but not in ways other Italian ones around the country have. Maybe because it is surrounded by water, maybe because of the cafés and restaurants that make it a national attraction, even though many Italians moved out and were replaced by yuppies, it did retain some of its original spirit and those who left for more convenient and affordable suburbs tend to come back, even if only to buy pastries, watch a soccer game or … a haircut!”

Even Johnny comes back to the store from time to time; when he does not, he sits at the café a block away up the street and talks to everyone who sees him through the window and stops by to say hello. The worst of the ‘gentrification’ is over according to Gino and what the North End has lost in ethnicity it has gained in safety ad cleanliness. “I meet my clients at the café, on the street … you still keep bumping into people you know all the time: as an Italian neighborhood this is as good as it gets. There is a real turnover, and there is definitely a future.”

That is why Gino is not even remotely thinking of retirement: his declared plan is to work until his health lets him. “Actually,” he adds with yet another bitter laugh “I plan to work for an extra five years after I die.” Yet, his short-term to-do list includes a task that for now sounds just as impossible: replacing Johnny or, in this case it would be fair to say, “filling his “shoes”.

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About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.