Walking into Isidoro’s Barber Shop is like walking back in time. As you step inside, a cash register, probably from the 1960s, sits on a shelf to the left. Above it, a red rotary phone (that may or may not work) is attached to the wall. Two barber chairs sit in front of a large mirror that spans most of the wall. Below the mirror on a shelf, all the necessary tools of the barber are strategically placed and lined up neatly in rows. Each one clean and shiny.
To the right of the mirror is a vintage toy car collection with a sign that reads, “Please don’t touch the cars. Thank you.” On the opposing wall, within a sea of memories, hangs the price list: Men’s Haircut: $7, Children’s: $7, Flat Top: $8, Long Hair: $10.
Yes, those are current prices.
For nearly 60 years, Isidoro Colonna has been giving a fresh look to customers spanning five generations, three shops, and two countries. It’s been an amazing run, but soon Isidoro (the single name by which everyone in town knows him, like Cher) will be putting down his shears for good as he plans to retire by the end of the year.
“So, what are you going to call this story? The story of Isidoro the Barber?” he asks, laughing in his slightly-broken-English-with-an-Italian-flair accent. He’s immediately disarming, with the sweetest of demeanors, and even at 77, age has done little to his vitality and stamina. He still sees regular customers weekly and could continue working for a few more years if he wanted to, but he still has other things he wants to do and says now is the right time to start his next chapter. “I feel very proud to have done this service to all those people I’ve met in my lifetime,” he says as we sit down to chat and he begins to tell me his life’s story. A story many San Pedrans of his generation will find very familiar.
JUST A BOY
Isidoro’s journey begins, like many San Pedrans of his generation, on the island of Ischia, Italy. When he was nine-years-old, his grandfather, also named Isidoro, brought him to his local barber where he wanted his grandson to work. “My grandfather, he used to go to a barber named Agostino, and he said to him that he wanted me to become a barber. So, right away, Agostino had me sweeping and I started working,” he remembers.
Isidoro’s apprenticeship lasted four years. At 13, he was allowed to start putting lather on men’s faces before a shave. By 14, Agostino believed he was ready to take on his own chair, but first, Isidoro had to prove he was ready.
“I started cleaning, but step by step, I was getting more responsibility,” he says. “Then later on, when I was ready, I had to give the owner a shave and cut his hair to make sure I was good enough to do the job. When I was 14, he said to me, ‘You’re good working with the customers.’ There were three chairs and I proved myself very good. And he was very proud of me. I worked that chair until I was 17, then I left for the United States.”
Wanting to join his father and brother who left for the U.S. two years prior to join the fleet of fisherman in San Pedro, Isidoro left Ischia by himself on February 28, 1958, on a ship called the Giulio Casare. Being a minor, he was supposed to be accompanied by a guardian. “The guy who was supposed to watch me was so drunk all the time on wine, I never saw him,” he laughs.
After an 11-day voyage, his first stop was Ellis Island in New York City. After a quick check of his luggage, he was picked up by his uncle and stayed a week in New York before taking the train cross-country to Los Angeles. He was picked up by his family at Union Station in Downtown L.A. and arrived for the first time in San Pedro.
Unfortunately, the joy of his arrival quickly vanished as he arrived to find his father in the hospital sick with cancer. The doctors only gave him a few months to live, within that time Isidoro and his family were able to fly his father back to his homeland of Ischia, where he would pass away a couple months later.
FINDING HIS CALLING
Adjusting to life in San Pedro, and America for that matter, was difficult for Isidoro. After losing his father, he started working at an aluminum factory in Long Beach during the day and would take English language lessons at an adult school at night. All this time, he was also making haircut house calls to friends and family to make some extra money.
“I finished my adult school, got my diploma, and then I enrolled in the Barber College in Long Beach. I quit the aluminum factory after five years because a friend told me about a barber job at Fort MacArthur,” remembers Isidoro. The job lead proved fruitful and Fort MacArthur hired Isidoro in 1967. He would stay at the military base cutting the hairs of soldiers and other military personnel for the next seven years until the base closed the barbershop.
Confident in his abilities and wanting to be his own boss, Isidoro decided to branch out on his own, and in 1973, he opened his first barber shop on 10th Street and Pacific Avenue. “I was so happy to own my own business,” he laughs. The 10th and Pacific shop didn’t last long. The following year, he was approached by another barber selling his business on 9th Street. “He comes to me saying he wants $3,000 for his business. I said no, too much,” recalls Isidoro. Knowing 9th Street was a better location, he thought this guy might take his counteroffer. “So, I came back and said I’d give him $1,000 cash and he said ok.” It was the perfect location in San Pedro to have a small business in the mid- 1970s. Isidoro’s new barber shop was located next door to the popular bowling alley at the time. (The building is now the new Alliance Alice M. Baxter College-Ready High School.) That area of Pacific Avenue was bustling and Isidoro was starting to enjoy the fruits of his labor. “It was a really good and interesting area at the time,” he says. “There was the Thrifty Drug Store on the corner. It was a good place to have a business.”
Isidoro would move into his third and final barber shop, this one located at 917 S. Grand Avenue (at 9th Street), in 2005. Knowing he moved into this final location just 13 years ago, makes the fact that he’s decorated the shop with the vintage cash register and rotary phone all the more charming. “I had to raise my haircut price two dollars when I moved here,” he says. “From five to seven.”
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…
The methods of the modern-day barber haven’t changed much in the six decades since Isidoro began cutting hair. Shears may be sharper and built better, brands and hair products may be different, but the art of the traditional men’s haircut and straight-edge shave remains timeless.
James Brown, owner of San Pedro Brewing Company and a regular customer of Isidoro’s, loves the throwback feeling he gets every time he walks into the shop. “I met Isidoro right before I opened the Brew Co. in 1999. Introduced myself as James, he’s called me Jimmy ever since. I loved it. It’s a throwback in time, with a single chair, Sinatra on the radio, hot shaving cream and a straight-edge razor. He always asks how my family is doing. I just love the guy.”
Isidoro Colonna with his wife Carmela in Puerto Vallarta in 2014
Isidoro Colonna with his wife Carmela in Puerto Vallarta in 2014
The barber's price list
The barber's price list in Isidoro Colonna's San Pedro barbershop (photo: John Mattera Photography)
Isidoro recalls one of his most famous customers, politician and bridge namesake, Vincent Thomas. “His mother-in-law used to live upstairs of my shop,” he remembers. “Whenever he’d come and visit her, he’d come in and get a haircut. He was a really nice guy.”
When asked what his favorite part about cutting hair has been, Isidoro is quick to say that getting to know people and becoming a part of the fabric of the community of San Pedro has been most rewarding. “I enjoy the trade, it’s a good trade,” he says. “The most important thing is connecting and hearing ideas from different people. We talk history and geography and where they’re from. Every day, I enjoy meeting all different people. I never refused anyone.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Even though Isidoro says he will miss cutting hair, he’s really excited about retirement. “This year will be fifty years since I married my beautiful wife, Carmela,” says Isidoro proudly. They celebrated their golden anniversary last month on October 19. The couple have three children, Lucy, John and Mary, and four grandchildren, Vincent, Austin, Alexis and Carly.
As the time draws near towards retirement, Isidoro is hoping someone will come in and take over the business. “Maybe someone will come along and take the place over,” he says. “I would like to have someone take over the business. This way the name and the old-style traditions of this barber shop will continue.”
Retirement won’t slow him down, though. He says he’ll continue to volunteer his time and talent to places like Little Sisters of the Poor, whenever they need someone to give haircuts to residents. He also plans on spending more time in his vegetable garden and going on casino trips with the Italian Catholic Federation. It’s been an amazing journey for a man whose career began when he was just a boy at the behest of his grandfather. “For over 55 years I was a barber. I love my job and I love working with people. I will be retiring this year. I will miss all of my customers, which are really my friends. You will always be in my heart. God bless all of you and thank you for being in my life all these years.”