By Dustin Luca
---- — Alfredo Santantonio, a master barber at Colonial Barbers in Shawsheen Plaza, says it was his wife who motivated him to leave his barbershop in Italy behind a half-century ago and come to the U.S. at the age of 20.
The statement drew a reaction from his colleague, apprentice barber Frank Morey, as he walked by.
”Love, love!” Morey exclaimed, patting Santantonio on the shoulder. “Say it.”
It’s the kind of good-natured moment that fills Colonial Barbers daily with warmth.
In today’s world, where barbershops compete with franchises “going up all over the place,” owner Paul Medolo said Colonial is rooted in the traditional feel of the old-time barbershop.
When Sam Reitano, the barbershop’s second owner in nearly 100 years of cuts and conversations, passed away in June 2011 at the age of 78, Medolo saw a challenge — and a chance — to continue the business’ tradition with some new blood and the support of a retired barber from Lawrence.
Reitano ran the barbershop for 42 years before selling it to Medolo in 2006. But Reitano stayed on after the sale, simply scaling back his involvement until he was stricken with cancer.
With Reitano’s health in decline, Medolo said a mutual friend came in one day and he started talking about how he was going to miss his mentor and what would become of the shop after his passing.
”He was looking at me and he said, ‘I know someone,’” Medolo recalled.
That someone was an Italian-born master barber named Alfredo.
A decade younger than Reitano, Santantonio had owned and operated a barbershop in Lawrence for decades after coming to the U.S. About 18 years ago, he had closed the shop and retired.
But in tribute to Reitano’s “extremely cordial, friendly, happy” attitude, Santantonio was convinced to pick up the sheers once again.
”When you do nothing for so long, it’s hard to go back,” Santantonio said. “Then I did some thinking, and decided to give (Medolo) one or two days (a week).”
Santantonio said the business of barbering has changed since he opened his first shop in Italy at the age of 17.
”It was unisex,” he said, “because I used to also be a hairdresser.”
The tools were all manual, powered by the hand instead of a cord plugged into a wall, he said.
Then he met his wife, “a young lady, a resident of the United States,” Santantonio said.
”She lived with me for five, six months, and over time, she convinced me to come over here. So I sold my business and came over here, and I started from scratch,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, and you can understand, (I didn’t) speak the language. It was very tough, but I put my head into that, and I managed to succeed.”
This summer, the 41-year-old, Morey, who had his hair cut at Colonial as a child, joined the barbershop as apprentice to Santantonio and Medolo.
It was love — namely his wife and child — who also brought Morey, a 1990 graduate of Andover High School, back to town. One day while sitting in Medolo’s chair, Morey, who had worked for years as a musician, discussed the prospect of going into the barbering business.”
This is where the shop’s employees form “kind of a weird, little circle,” according to Medolo.
To start the lengthy path toward his license, Morey went to New England Hair Academy, the same school Medolo went to when he became an apprentice decades before. In fact, Medolo’s first day at the school, back in the day, was also Reitano’s birthday.
Meanwhile, Morey’s birthday is June 22, the same day Reitano died.
Morey said while he didn’t remember Reitano, he feels he has gotten to know the late barber through working at Colonial.
”I get to hear all the stories from Paul and all the old customers that come in. I feel like I know him a lot better,” he said.
With Santantonio and Medolo passing along their combined 75 years of experience to Morey, the plan is for the apprentice to someday take over the shop.
”As I was to Sam, (Morey) is my built-in, semi-retirement package,” Medolo said, laughing. “I could do like I did for Sam. He was able to back off gradually over time, but still be a part of the shop.”
Morey said he’ll be there when Medolo “starts shaking.”
”My idea would be that it would be nice to have a small shop and learn the trade,” Morey said. “This place has been around for 100 years, almost, and it has always gone from a master to an apprentice. I’d like that tradition to continue.”