by Roger Smith
The dean of Glebe barbers has hung up his clippers after 48 years and more than 100,000 haircuts. Ernesto Falbo bought the Martella Barber Shop at 887 Bank in 1970 and renamed it Ernesto’s. Now 75, he decided over the last weekend in April it was time to retire and he left the next Friday. “I was just going to take a month off,” he said. “Then I was talking to my wife and she said it’s time to stop.”
After learning to cut hair as a teenager in his native Italy, Ernesto emigrated from Calabria in 1967, following a sister and two brothers to Ottawa. He started at a barbershop on Preston Street and worked on his English before going out on his own. But that was risky business in the early 70s when long hair was in – five barbers in the Glebe went out of business and Ernesto almost did too. “I remember young kids walking by with their long hair – they’d look in the window and laugh. For two years, I had a hard time. I thought about giving up.”
But Ernesto hung in, mostly because he didn’t know how else to support his young family. His business finally started to thrive despite growing competition from fancy, more expensive hair salons and stylists. A hair cut cost $2.50 when he first opened; it’s now just $16. With a TV tuned to news or sports above stacks of newspapers, Ernesto’s drew a cost-conscious mix of Glebe residents, university students and Italian old-timers who prefer a traditional barbershop.
“The majority of young barbers, it’s not my style,” says Gerry Conte, an Italian immigrant who became a regular 30 years ago when his friend Guerino (Gerry) Turano joined Ernesto. “Ernesto and Gerry, they do it old style. I try to keep the old tradition.”
Jono Hamer-Wilson, an Australian expat, thinks the usual wait to get into the chair is part of the attraction. “I always enjoy the atmosphere in here, especially when all the old Italian guys come in and start shooting the breeze. It’s a great vibe.”
On Ernesto’s last day, a parade of long-time customers came by with wine, flowers and best wishes, praising their soft-spoken barber as a true gentleman. Among them, John Kruspe, a former Ottawa Rough Rider who provided the signed photo of the 1973 Grey Cup team that hangs on the wall. After being traded from Montreal, Kruspe stumbled on Ernesto’s just after it opened and he’s been coming ever since. “I was just walking down the street from Lansdowne, exploring a new city, and here’s a barber shop,” he says. “It was just the place to go, so friendly.”
Mitch Slavitch dropped off a restaurant gift certificate, his thanks for a quarter century of haircuts. “Look at the price – $20, including tip – and you get a good cut,” he says. “Half the fun is waiting, talking with the other guys, watching some soccer on TV. It’s definitely a guy space.”
After Craig Trenholm got his last haircut from Ernesto, he wanted to talk about the first one 20 years ago. “I had hair down to my shoulders. I said I wanted a military cut. He was just closing but he said get in the chair. I went to pay him but he wouldn’t take any money. I asked why. He said I want to make sure you come back.”
While Ernesto may also have taken some pleasure in chopping some of the long hair that almost put him out of business, he isn’t looking back, he’s looking forward to a quieter life in retirement. “Travel a bit, short trips. And I have a lot of work to do at home.” Including in his garden, where he grows tomatoes, zucchini, beans and peppers.
His first wife died in 1992 but he remarried in 1996. He has three grown children and so does his wife Yolande. Just after turning 70, Ernesto sold his business to Sam Alnusiry, who owns the Sunnyside Barber Shop in Ottawa South. But not much is changing. The other two barbers, Gerry and Tri Nguyen who started four years ago, are still on the job and have been joined by a barber from Sunnyside. Alnusiry insists the shop will continue to be called Ernesto’s.
As for Ernesto, is there anything he’s going to miss? “What you see here,” he said, gesturing around the crowded shop on his final day. “The people. I thank you, everybody. They’re all great guys who came in here.”
Glebe resident Roger Smith is a retired journalist and a long-time customer of Ernesto’s.