‘Always someone in the chair’: How Thunder Bay’s hair salon came about after pandemic closures

After hundreds of days of pandemic closures, the sounds of electric clippers, hair dryers and friendly chatter have returned to one of the oldest hair salons in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The business, aptly named Barber Shop, was one of many businesses in the personal services sector hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the industry which at times during the pandemic has been “decimated” by various blockages and restrictions.

But as the pandemic slowed, business at the Barber Shop – which originally opened in January 1961 – picked up right back.

“There were tough times there,” owner Bryan Fresco said. “We’ve had over 400 days of closure.”

“Every month, your regulars would call you and say, ‘Hey, how are you?'” he says. “You’re just saying I’m in the same situation as you. We’re all going to figure it out together.”

The pandemic has also been difficult for staff.

“It was awful,” said Darius Visser-DiCarlo, who has worked as a barber at the store since January 2019. “I was out of work. I lost a whole bunch of money. The bills didn’t stop, but t allowed to make money.

“I just rolled with the punches, tried my best to stay afloat and I’m just glad to be back.”

Fresco said the store really started to rebound in November last year. He didn’t lose any staff and regulars came back for their haircuts whenever they could.

While owner Bryan Fresco retained the original 1961 furnishings, he altered the decor, including adding tool boxes where barbers store their equipment. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

“It looks like we’ve bounced back really, really well,” he said. “We have four guys. We’re still working, we’re still cutting hair.”

“There’s always someone in the chair,” Fresco said. “I think the community has really come together and is trying to put this behind us, and looking to the future.”

Fresco has a particularly personal interest in keeping the business going: his father was the original owner and Fresco himself took over the shop 17 years ago.

“I literally woke up one day and looked in the mirror, and I said, ‘I’m going to go to hairdressing school,'” Fresco said. “Simple as that.”

Fresco retained all of the original furniture, but made some changes to the interior of the barber shop, bringing an automotive-inspired look with, for example, barber equipment kept in tool boxes. The store is also licensed to sell beer, so customers can get a pint with their cup.

A place ‘where a dude can come and relax’

Overall, the boutique is “somewhere a guy can come and hang out,” Fresco said. “It’s comfortable.”

The Barber Shop now attracts people from all over Thunder Bay, and even from outside the country. Fresco has welcomed customers from as far away as Finland, Sweden and Australia to the chairs.

Visser-DiCarlo said the camaraderie the job provides is a big draw.

“We all get along great, we joke around all day, and the environment is fantastic,” he said. “It’s just a really good time to spend my days here.. Couldn’t think of a better place to be.”

Fresco and Visser-DiCarlo said they weren’t too worried about possible future COVID-related shutdowns.

Health and cleanliness are an important part of a barber’s job, Visser-DiCarlo said.

“The one thing hairdressing school really taught me was disease control,” he said. “The importance of washing your tools, washing your hands. That’s the only thing school really taught me.”

“We have Clippercide, Barbicide, after every haircut you clean all your tools, you pray it with disinfectant,” Visser-DiCarlo said. “You wash your hands after each customer. There is no cross-contamination.”

Fresco said COVID-19 did not require the store to make any long-term changes to its operation, as the company maintained a very high level of cleanliness before the pandemic.

“We’re not going to rock the boat,” he said. “Me and the guys get along really well here, and we have a great vibe.”

“Just come in, book your appointment online and check us out,” Fresco said. “I think you’ll get a really good haircut here.”

Alejandro L. Myatt