30 Years in the Game with Bob the Barber

by by Malcolm Burnley

illustration by by The Author & Emily Fishman

Barbers haven’t always just cut hair: during the Middle Ages, so-called barber surgeons performed bloodletting procedures on plague-ridden and disease-stricken folk to alleviate them of evil spirits, through leeching or cutting their veins. Once finished with bloodletting operations, barbers displayed their crimson bloodstained bandages on cylindrical posts outdoors in order to advertise their medical practice. Out of this custom arose the modern emblem of the barber’s pole.

While the role of the barber has evolved over time, from a part-time doctor to a professional trimmer to a pop-culture stylist, the red, white, and blue helix has endured as the industry’s calling card. But you won’t find one outside Bob’s Barbershop in downtown Providence: that’d be a bit too flashy for its owner.

Bob Lepore, 62, prefers simplicity to swagger. He runs an old-school operation, but would not go as far as call himself medieval. “Barbers used to pull teeth, you know? If I had to, I would just tell them to drink a gallon of whiskey and hand over the pliers.”

Lepore, who is bald, grew up in Providence and has barbered in the city for three decades. He has made the same daily commute, six days a week, for the last 28 years, arriving off Bus 57 from Johnston each morning, even on sleepy Saturdays. While the rest of downtown Dorrance Street is near-dead, when City Hall is still in slumber, Lepore stiffly hobbles down Dorrance, staggers up four flights of stairs, and is open for business at 8:30 AM, ready to welcome walk-ins. “I’ll be working until I’m dead,” he says.

Old-Time Appeal
Bob’s Barbershop reflects Lepore’s humble, easy-going demeanor. “I fly under the radar,” he insists. “I keep it simple.” His space is 260 square feet of clean white walls and wood-stained floors. It is a scaled-back example of the old-time barbershop and a simplified alternative to modern day salons. “No computers, no rushing around, no hustling,” is one of Lepore’s mottos, demonstrating his concern over comfort, rather than commerce. “Everything is money now. That is status.”

Lepore sells no retail products, doesn’t bother with appointments, and never advertises beyond keeping the door propped open. This formula has kept him in business since the ‘80s, attracting the same clientele for years. Bob’s Barbershop draws mainly professionals in search of a trim either before or after work. “The businessman—that’s my style of haircut,” Lepore says.

Although his space lacks the lavish accommodations of some old-time barbershops, like a personal tuxedo service (Lepore prefers to wear black t-shirts and khakis), it still exemplifies their leisure. He sees 50 customers on average each week, about one for every hour he works—meaning he can provide an abundance of attention to customers and still be left with long stretches of idleness. He spends most of the day alone, routinely killing time: getting a coffee, reading the newspaper, or listening to the Oldies play on the radio, like his favorite—the Rat Pack.

Lepore relishes the convenience and consistency of the trade. “It is always clean, warm in the winter, and cool in the summer,” he says. Sipping on iced tea and eating peanut butter crackers, he reminisces about the old days, “when there was a barber shop on every corner in Providence,” each offering old-time amenities.

He remembers Tony’s on Hope Street—now a CVS—with its hot lather foams and two-track razors, warm towels and relaxing massages. Lepore is a hold-over from this era, a generation of barbers decreasing in number. “They say small barber shops are coming back, but I don’t believe in it. Kids want to go to Supercuts.”

Style and speed are what appeals to today’s customer, and Lepore admits he provides neither. He dislikes it when customers show up in a hurry, talking on cell phones while he works. “You have to be gentle, and have lots of patience.”

What It Takes
During his three-decade career in Providence, Lepore has witnessed the barbering industry ebb and flow: it was at its lowest during the ‘60s, he claims, when flowing locks and freedom ‘fros ruled supreme; it peaked in the booming ‘90s, when sleek business-cuts were all the rage. The ‘80s were the heyday for business, when one of Lepore’s regular customers was Governor John Chafee; Lepore found him to be “a straight-shooter,” unlike his son, the current Governor Lincoln Chafee. “The kid is spaced-out,” Lepore says, groaning about Rhode Island’s potholes, filth, and the Governor’s call to implement a new sales-tax on barbers and other exempt cash businesses. “It will never pass.”

When Lepore started out as an aspiring barber in the late ‘70s, it was an intimidating business to enter. Young barbers dealt with second-hand smoke from customers (ashtrays were built into chairs in the ‘80s), and endured second-class treatment from veteran barbers. Providence had a notoriously hostile and exclusive barbering community, where veteran barbers held a monopoly over the business, often working into their ‘90s, and required long hours and low pay from assistants. “They liked to get respect, to show you who is boss.”

Back then, customers were more open and confided in barbers while getting their hair cut, treating them as serviceable replacements for paid psychologists. Now, Lepore says, “you got to take a lot of shit, because the customer is always right.” To prepare him for the modern demands of the trade, Lepore credits the Army of all places—home of the buzz-cut—for his longevity in the industry, calling his time in the reserves, “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

After graduating from Providence’s Central High School in 1968, he enrolled in the Massachusetts School of Barbering in 1971, located on Boston’s Washington Street, known as “The Combat Zone” at the time for its violent shootings. It was a safe haven compared to the alternative: Vietnam. “My number was very close to being called,” Lepore says, but he managed to circumvent combat action by enlisting in the Air National Guard for six years.

He would travel to South Carolina or Alabama for two weeks each summer, fulfilling active-duty training. Drill Sergeants doled out discipline like candy: push-ups, morning runs around the barracks, and worst of all for an aspiring barber, dry shaves. “That was torture,” Lepore says.

In the staggering Southern sun, drill sergeants checked their troops for stubble. If they found sufficient 5 o’clock shadow, an excruciating dry shave was warranted. Using a dull blade and no shaving cream, each man would scrape the stubble clean from his cheeks and neck. “They don’t do stuff like that now,” from what Lepore hears, but he continues to believe in military discipline. “You need some kind of structure in life. They should bring back the draft, so you won’t see these guys on the street, bumming around.”

Loneliness and Longevity
After completing 1,000 hours of barber’s training, while serving his time in the Reserves, Lepore earned his certification and began working three days a week at Paul’s Barber Shop on Chalkstone Avenue, in Providence. In 1984, he opened the Hospital Trust Barber Shop, tidying up the hair of bankers and bureaucrats who stopped in during lunch breaks. Lepore relocated to his current location on Dorrance Street in 2006, where he plans to remain for the foreseeable future. “I can work until I’m 85, unless my hands start shaking. Then they’ll put me in a home,” he chuckles.
According to Lepore, the owner of Tony’s on Hope Street worked until he was 95 years old. “It probably took him all day to do one customer though,” he says. Lepore is resilient in his refusal to retire, bragging that he is just as proficient with scissors and clippers as ever.

When Lepore furnished the Dorrance space, he installed two swivel chairs, even though he lacked an assistant. Originally, he hoped that his friend and colleague, Francesco Marsocci, might join him some afternoons to snip sideburns at his side. Marsocci was known as “Frank the Barber,” a one-time Barber Commissioner for the Rhode Island Department of Health, who used to work part-time for Lepore at the Hospital Trust Barbershop, but he passed away just before the grand opening of Bob’s Barbershop.
Without a partner or successor, Lepore held out hope that one of his two sons might end up taking over the business, but “neither wants any of it,” he says. Bob’s Barbershop continues to be one man’s solitary pursuit. “I get on the bus, I go to work, I get back on the bus, and I go home,” Lepore says, where he lives with his wife and one of his sons.

In July, he will begin collecting Social Security, although he has no extravagant plans for the money. Lepore never travels, claiming that he gets tired (and bored) after two or three days away from Rhode Island, but predicts he will indulge in some modest luxuries like cigars, brandy, and family cook-outs. He might even invest a portion of his Social Security “in the tracks,” meaning gambling, he says.

Most days are slow, and Lepore likes to spend downtime in the customer waiting area, un-anxiously awaiting the next businessman. “You gotta be low-key in this business,” he says, yawning. “If you have a lot of energy, you’d be climbing up the walls.”

MALCOLM BURNLEY B’12 didn’t get a hair cut (he got them all cut).