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Il barbiere di Sunset Park

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The wooden cash register in Tony’s Park Barber Shop in Sunset Park perpetually reads $2. Long ago the prices exceeded the cash register’s ability to count. So when Tony Garofalo rings up a $10 haircut, he taps the metal $2 key five times, the register’s bell ringing with each tap.

Since he bought the place in 1964, Garofalo has changed as little as possible. His barber’s license still has the original black and white photo from 1963. And he still finishes up his haircuts using warm shaving cream and a straight razor.

Don’t be fooled; Garofalo is not stuck in 1963. As the neighborhood has changed around him, this Italian immigrant who arrived without a word of English has adapted as the neighborhood changed. Today, he still fits right in.

“We understand,” said Garofalo of Italian-Americans. “We were them before.”

Elvis Guzman, a longtime customer, came into the store unshaven and wanting a haircut for a job interview the following day. Short on money, he asked Garofalo for a discount.

At first, it seemed that Garofalo’s understanding had reached its limit: “What are you beggin’?” The act over, he relented, and Guzman sat down for his trim.

Guzman, 46, brought his children to the barbershop — and one time even his wife. He described Garofalo as “a good talker, and a good listener too.”

Garofalo dismissed the praise: “I don’t get paid for therapy. Sometimes not even for the haircut!”

Despite the occasional discount, Tony “Felice” Garofalo has done well for himself. He left Italy after World War II and stayed in Switzerland until he was 26, emigrating to Brooklyn in 1964.

Within a week of his arriving, Garofalo got a job in what is now his barbershop, located on Fifth Avenue between 44th and 45th streets. He bought it less than a year later, for $1,800, from another Italian immigrant.

Working a second job loading beer trucks, he bought the building several years later for $35,000. He now owns the salon and the seven apartments above it. Garofalo’s English today bears the imprint of both Italy and Brooklyn. Speaking of his customers who return for haircuts, he said, “They still-a come here — from Staten Island, from New Joisey.”

These days, most of his customers are Spanish speakers. But when Garofalo arrived there were more Italian immigrants than Puerto Ricans, according to the 1960 census. But starting in the 1970s, Sunset Park began transforming into a largely Latino neighborhood. Today, 53 percent of the neighborhood is Hispanic — primarily Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican, according to the Census.

In a two-hour span on a Friday , Garofalo’s customers included two Puerto Ricans, one Mexican, and one non-Latino.

Pleased with his haircut, Guzman declared, “He always does make me look good.”

Garofalo chided him, “I gotta work hard to make you look good — matter of fact, very hard.”

Taking one more look in the mirror, Guzman smiled. “Gracias, Papi,” he said. There was no need to translate.

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Reader Feedback

Kristin from Sunset Park says:
Thanks for giving some positive attention to the neighborhood. Hopefully it will keep businesses like this profitable and vital and they will stay put as more changes occur.
May 8, 2008, 3:57 pm

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