There's a room within the upstairs offices at Allstate Hairstyling and Barber College that showcases barber chairs, equipment and memorabilia from the D'Amico family's decades in the business. It's an ode to history and to the solid dependability of haircutting as a social institution and a line of work. One floor below, students cut hair all day and embark on profitable careers. Up here, however, owner Mike D'Amico presides. Here, we sit with Mike and his daughter-in-law Jennifer and talk about how his father Phil D'Amico originally got involved and how the family business has been doing ever since.
Mike D'Amico: (shuffling through the offices and pointing out artifacts) An opportunity came up and, well, he bought the business and moved it over here to this building.
Eric Sandy: That was in '74, you said?
MD: Yeah. And right up until he passed away in '08, he had another school downtown. That was on Prospect and Fourth Street. When Gateway came in, they had to move it — moved it over to Broadway and we got to a point he was getting up in years. He finally said he couldn't take that one anymore. He just concentrated on this one. This was his love here — helping people. He got a kick out of it.
ES: What's the process like? If I were to come here — and I've got no experience cutting hair — how does it work?
MD: It'll take you about a year to get through. By the time you get through, you should be able to go to Columbus and pass your test and go to work. I always tell people, you're gonna learn your basics here. But when you get to work in a shop for a living, you're gonna learn more. Each individual shop owner has his own characteristics. He's gonna teach you.
ES: I've gone to a few shops over the years on the westside, and some have closed along the way. How's the business in Northeast Ohio?
Jennifer D'Amico: Even more than those coming in, we have calls from shop owners wanting their shops to stay open and they're looking for barbers. Everyone always needs a haircut. It's one of those industries that just keeps going.
MD: (riffling through papers on his desk) These are people looking for barbers, these are people looking for barbers, another one looking for barbers. There's work out there. A lot of them are getting upscale — more spa and salon stuff. There's money to be made, if you pay attention. There are two girls downstairs now. They came from a salon in Cleveland Heights. One's a cosmetologist, and one's a nail tech. They're both here to get barber's licenses. It's a fun business, if you let it be.
ES: Any great stories from over the years?
MD: We have a guy who started in 1961 as a customer. He started going when he was at Ignatius. Still a customer today.
JD: We have this one student who was doing a shave on a gentleman, and this guy's wife is sitting in the chair next to him, and the wife's like, "Make sure you don't knick him. He's got a big show tonight!" He was the guest conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra. I always tell the students that you never know who's going to be in your chair. Talk to them! Everyone comes from all over. Then you get the people from the neighborhood who've saved their $5 in nickels and they're paying for a haircut. They're the thread of the neighborhood, and they keep it interesting too.
ES: The art of conversation must be a huge part of the job.
MD: You'd better believe it. Like she's saying, you don't know who's coming in. Figure out the customer base and watch them for a while.
ES: What sort of students does the school attract?
MD: We've had people in here anywhere from 18 to — Erwin... how old was Erwin? — 62. It's truly an interesting business, as long as things are going smoothly. You can have a lot of fun here and meet the most interesting people you can imagine.
ES: How has the neighborhood changed in your eyes?
MD: When I went to barber school here, Great Lakes Brewery — the brewery portion over there — was a Salvation Army warehouse and barracks. You went straight to the end of the street, where you've got the Dave's parking lot, that was the Stella Maris home. There was another one just west of that. These are all homes for homeless guys, drunks, whatever. You had the Jay Hotel down the road, famous for drugs and prostitution. The area was okay. There was still business here. Of course, people came to the Market from all over the place. As time has progressed, you know, that's a brewery now, that's a parking lot. The population of the area has changed quite a bit. It was a steadily declining area. The past couple years have reversed the whole damn thing. Try to buy property around here; it's crazy.
ES: And here you are as the anchor.
MD: In the neighborhood, we're trying to encourage businesses that will bring in more families. It helps us.
JD: Mike's done a lot to get us nationally accredited. We work with every agency out there to help students come through. The school is just about getting people to work and be successful in their communities. It's kind of a grassroots thing. It's not a ton of money; it's the joy of seeing people on their own and supporting themselves and their families. That's what it's about.