There is something sacred about barbering – it is a profession with a rich history and distinct culture.
Rob’s love for the traditional barber shop was fueled following a trip to Calabria, Italy to visit his family. Now he is committed to reinventing the standards of the barber – offering a shop where trend meets tradition.
Back Alley Barber Shop | Niagara Falls ON
You come from a family of talented barbers and stylists. The hair industry has always been a part of your life. Tell our readers the story behind the Back Alley Barber Shop.
I was always in a hair salon or barber shop growing up.
My father, born in Italy, started his training in Calabria and then came to Canada in the 70’s. He worked in Toronto then moved to Niagara Falls after meeting my mother. She was also a hairdresser, until a knee injury forced her to stop working.
In 1975, my parents opened Hair Lovers Place on Queen Street, where my father still works to this day. He has employed many people over the years, most of the salon owners in Niagara have passed through the doors of his shop.
I have had other family members in the industry as well. My father’s brother came from Italy and worked here for 10 years, before returning home to open his own shop. My uncle Tony is a barber in Italy (still going strong at the age of 70). He came to visit us this year and helped out at my shop.
Following in my family’s footsteps.
After high school, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, I went to Italy for 6 months. I hung out at my uncle’s barber shop helping out, watching the day-to-day business. I enjoyed the comradery between the men, coming in and out of the shop.
I got a love for the barber shop. Men just hanging out, shooting the shit. Getting their hair done.
When I came back home, I got into hairdressing school and apprenticed with Alex Fortino of Salon Alessandro. He is pretty much a legend in the industry and his daughters will be there to carry on his legacy once he retires.
When I was 18 or 19, I started working with my father. Those who have worked with family, know it is never easy. I was young and had different ideas.
After 3 years, to the heartbreak of my father, I stopped doing hair. Even though I liked doing men’s haircuts, I didn’t enjoy doing women’s hair anymore. I ended up selling jewelry while working on cruise ships for many years, travelling around the world. It gave me good insight to the product and sales part of this business, which has benefited my business today.
Over the years, my father was always pushing me back into women’s hair. But I still preferred doing men’s hair, even though some say you make less money. But you have to like what you do, so it was never about the money for me.
We made a deal.
After I returned home, one night over dinner, my father and I made a deal. I would work for him for six months in the salon, and then I could open my own barber shop in the back of my dad’s salon, right off the parking lot.
I opened up the barber shop officially in 2015. My logo, inspired by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, is a homage to my father, Hair Lovers Place, and a love for this industry.
To build a barber shop that feels like home, you need to have things that represent you.
I used things from my past that my father had collected and kept in his basement to decorate the shop. My red Belmont barber chair, was bought by my father when I was young, from one of his customers whose own father had been a barber.
Three years later, my father continues to do hair pretty much 4 to 5 days a week. We are the oldest business on the street and things are going beyond my expectations. The shop is very busy. I am very proud of what it has become.
Barbering has such a rich history, it is one of the oldest professions known to man. What is the story behind the barber pole? And, what does it symbolize for you?
It’s pretty much well known among barbers that the red and white stripes were the original pole colors. At one time in history, barbers were a jack of all trades. Along with cutting hair, they were surgeons, extracted teeth and performed blood letting. The red and white colors symbolized the blood and bandages. The pole itself represented the staff patients gripped during procedures. The blue some say represents veins, while others say it was a homage to the States when it came to America. There are different variations to the story, but basically this is the gist of it.
Barbering being one of the oldest professions (aside from prostitution) represents tradition and is an important part of our history. Even until recently there has been some controversy, some feel that if you don’t have a licensed barber in your shop, you shouldn’t be allowed to have a pole.
I tend to agree with this a bit. If you don’t use a straight blade or do hot shaves, I don’t think you should have a barber pole outside your shop. I didn’t have one until I knew how to shave properly – as a personal stipulation to myself, to honor the tradition and brotherhood. I have a William Marvy Company pole, as they are the only manufacturers of the barber pole in North America. Bob Marvy, the grandson of William Marvy, answered the phone when I ordered mine. Their factory tour is on my bucket list.
After I left the industry, whenever I would see a pole during my travels, I would go into the shop and it felt like home.
It’s universal symbol. Just like with McDonald’s golden arches, when people see it they think of burgers and fries. People see a barber pole, they think of haircuts and shaves.
In South Korea both barber shops and brothels use the barber pole. To avoid confusion, if a man visits a barber shop and there is only one pole spinning outside, he’s just getting a trim. If he visits a barber shop with twin poles, there’s a good chance he’s paying for a happy ending too.
Scumbag Barbers of Rotterdam are known for doing barbering the old fashioned way. Is that your approach to the craft as well?
I discovered the Scumbags of Rotterdam about 5 years ago when I got back into the industry, they have been an inspiration for me and my own shop.
Leen and Bertus (AKA the Bloody Butcher) who started the Scumbags are veterans in the industry. We approach the craft the same way – the traditional, old school way. I really respect them. Bertus loves to share his knowledge. I learned so much from their videos, he just has a lot of great advice.
Don’t hate, appreciate and then educate.
– Bertus (AKA the Bloody Butcher)
This year I had my first show working for Reuzel Pomade, thanks to my friend and mentor Demo Pedulla of Bloke Barbers, the original Scumbassador of Canada. He has been working with them for about 5 years now. I am honored to be representing them on the education side in Canada alongside Demo. I love their products and carry every single one of them in my shop.
In this industry you never stop learning.
Next year, I am planning to go to the Holy Grail in Rotterdam to train at the academy and fine tune my skills.
What does the Back Alley Barber Shop experience bring to clients?
I wanted to build a shop that would make my clients feel as comfortable as possible. Once the barn wood went up on the first wall, you could feel the vibe come through.
A place where they can talk about sports, women and not have to worry about being politically correct. Have a coffee or at Christmas time have a shot of whiskey. When they walk in I will either have a movie on or a record playing, rock and roll or blues. I want them to be able to say and do what they feel like, within reason of course.
I want them to know if they come to my shop they will get a good haircut. Consistency is what I am trying to focus on – no matter who cuts your hair in my shop. If I ever need a reminder about how well we are doing, I just have to look at the collection of hats left behind in my shop.
I want to have the products they need to make themselves look and feel better and be happy when they leave. It makes me feel good that my customers feel good. We aren’t saving lives, but it is a great responsibility. Hair is one of the first things you notice on a person. And, in life, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
I love the look of your shop. I want to know the story behind everything. Can you tell us the story behind the passport picture you have hanging on the wall?
A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into setting up the shop, but it was fun to decorate. The passport is of my grandfather, my mother’s father, who passed away almost 10 years ago now. My Nonno laid tile and marble, he built houses. He was a jack of all trades. My mother had it made on his 50th year in Canada. It is his passport picture blown up along with the ship he came over from Italy. It is a little reminder that I have him watching over me everyday while I work.
I have a piece of the first class floor smoking room from the Titanic. I have the original windows from the building for 1965. Signed pictures from celebrities who have been in my shop. I have a lot of good magazines and books too – expensive ones, vintage magazines, Playboys.
There are many things to see and experience. That is why people love coming into the shop. You’re never bored. Whatever keeps people off their phones makes me happy, even if they are just watching us do great cuts.
I love the era of the Rat Pack – the original kings of swag. Frank Sinatra just gave this sense of cool, still unmatched today. What about that era appeals to you most?
Not too far from my grandfather’s photo, I have a picture of the Rat Pack. They are definitely unmatched today, in that sense of cool. I would give anything just to spend a day back then, the old Vegas. What appeals to me about that time is men were gentlemen: dressed properly, haircuts were spot on and always in place, very classy. People tend to be very sloppy today. It was just a better time back then. But today, there is a little sub-culture of men trying to bring the cool back.
The world is a very complicated place now, I can only hope we can get back to those golden times.
A lot of the haircuts we have been doing in the last year or two are reminiscent of those times. So even though the behavior and the way we are dressing are not quite as good as back then, the haircuts are definitely making a comeback. So at least that is one step closer.
I read an article by Kristen Barber called Goodbye to the barbershop? It ties the decline of the barbershop with another sign that traditional community ties are crumbling. I think it is a real tragedy.
People don’t talk to each other anymore, as the art of conversation is disappearing. Do you think that social media will help reignite the nostalgia for the old-school barbershops?
These days it is a double edge sword when it comes to social media.
I definitely use it to my advantage. Facebook and Instagram have helped build up my barber shop. I always like to include a message with my posts on social media – be it hours of operation, new products, group pictures of wedding parties, or showing the camaraderie and the overall good times that we have.
People are posting pictures of their shop and services and it is helping reignite the nostalgia for the old-school barber shops. A lot of people come into my shop just from seeing the pictures on Facebook, Instagram or on the back of my business card.
It helps connect barbers from all around the world.
Scumbags of Rotterdam exploded through social media, everyone knew about this little shop in Rotterdam. Now they have a new barber shop and the original one is now their academy.
The art of conversation.
It’s one of the positive aspects of the barber culture. In my barber shop, when appointments overlap, people talk to each other. Unless it is an emergency, I don’t like when people pull out their phones during their appointment. It’s pretty sad if you can’t put your phone down 30 minutes for a haircut.
I enjoy talking to my customers, hearing about their lives, telling them about what I am doing. Just everyday, general conversation. I think it’s very important and barber shops help keep that alive. Especially with the younger generation. My employee Angelo, who is 19, has a lot of young customers. It’s good to show them how we used to get haircuts back in the day.
Then there is the negative aspect of social media: shops bashing other shops. There is a lot of ego in the industry between the barbers right now. People are forgetting it is all about the customer. Because if it wasn’t for them, there would be nothing to post.
We all can get negative, but I try to show my staff the positive. I teach them to leave the ego at the door. There is always someone better. There is always something to learn.
Only the strong will survive.
We will find out soon enough how long the boom will last. The posers, those who don’t want to be on their feet 8-10 hours a day and do they daily grind will fall by the waste side. What will be left are the true barbers who love this industry.
I love to go to work everyday and make people look good. – Rob Barranca
Helping to educate the next generation of barbers is important to you. You recently went on what you unofficially called the ‘Reuzel Barber Magical Mystery Tour’ with your good friend and mentor Demo Pedulla of Bloke Barbers. Can you tell us a little about that experience?
Demo Pedulla and I met three years ago and we just hit it off. We had the same kind of path. He was a hairdresser first and worked in his mom’s salon with his uncle. He helped me get my job as a platform artist/educator with Reuzel. I will be forever in his debt for that.
He is very intelligent and knows the business. He helps me be a better person – in life and in this industry. I am thankful for his friendship. I learn something new every time I am with him. Demo definitely doesn’t get the credit he deserves in this industry, but not for long because he is working on some big things.
Reuzel Barber Magical Mystery Tour
The first week we were in Saskatoon and I was very nervous. It was a full barber show — there was no hairdressing and cosmetology involved. I have spoken in front of people before, but when you are cutting hair and explaining things in front of your peers it’s different. You have to ask yourself why they are there to listen to you. Plus, it was my first show. So it was a little nerve racking.
The first night in Saskatoon we judged the battle of the barbers, a beard/haircut competition. Then on the second day, Demo and I were on stage for 3-4 hours. It’s a long time to keep someone’s attention. But everything ended up going well. There were great reviews and it was well organized. It was a great first show.
I thought I was going to throw up before I went on stage. But after the first five minutes it got better, then once I did a shave on stage, I got very comfortable.
I owe everything to Demo for bringing me and coaching me along. I am just glad that I didn’t disappoint anyone and I am very happy the way it turned out. I can’t thank him enough for pushing me to be better and go out of my comfort zone.
The week after I came home I worked in my shop for three days and then I had the privilege of going with Demo to assist him at the 2018 NHL Awards. He was kind and generous enough to share his experience with me. For a Canadian boy who enjoys hockey, going to Vegas and cutting hockey player’s hair was unbelievable. Once again I always learn something from him.
I had another show with Demo in Niagara Falls representing Reuzel this past October. It was special because it was my hometown. I was a little more comfortable, being my second show and I got to see a lot of my friends in the industry.
I will continue to educate and try to get better to pass the barber brotherhood gospel along. The more we educate the better it is for the future of this industry. We will never run the risk it going out of extinction, like it once almost did.
We are in a cool industry and I am glad to be part of it.
It’s fun to be at shows, meeting barbers from around the world. Seeing the different talent and ideas. I have met a lot of people. I am still in contact with some and we have become friends. And, every once in a while, I get shout outs from hockey players on Instagram.
But you can’t just get into it because it is cool. It’s not about becoming a celebrity barber. You have to work hard, practice, take care of your clients and be the best barber you can be. All that other stuff is extra.
Finally, how does it feel to be the proud owner of your own bobble head – joining the Scumbags?
It’s hilarious – such a beautiful gift. I turned 40 this year and my sister was nice enough to have that specially made for me.
Funny story there, my birthday is on February 12th and I believe I got it sometime in March. I remember saying to my Mother, ‘I turned 40 and she didn’t even buy me a present’. They left me hanging there for a while.
I have a bunch of bobble heads now in the shop. People really get a kick out of mine because they think it really does look like me.
Congratulation to the Back Alley Barber Shop team for being vote #1 Barbershop in Niagara Falls for 2018.