A cut below: In the basement of Downtown’s Koppers Building, a convivial barber keeps customers coming back
Retired public relations executive Larry Werner has been sporting the same no-nonsense businessman’s haircut since at least the Kennedy administration, if not longer: short around the sides and neck, smoothly tapered on top.
It’s so basic a cut that even a beginning cosmetology student could do it. But Mr. Werner trusts the 20-minute job to only one person.
Since the mid-1980s — it’s been so long now, he can’t remember the exact year — Ron DeMutis has cut his hair in the small barbershop tucked in the basement of the Downtown Koppers Building. The experience is such a habit that he doesn’t just make the long drive from Franklin Park to town every two weeks; he also schedules trips to Florida around his long-standing appointment.
OK, so maybe he’s had his hair cut once or twice by one of the shop’s two other barbers when Mr. DeMutis has the nerve to go on vacation. (Barbers need a break, too.) But quite reluctantly.
“Guys are funny,” says Mr. Werner, 77, with a chuckle. “I don’t like anyone else cutting my hair.”
The $15 price ($20 if you want to splurge on a wash and cut) might seem an obvious draw, but for Mr. Werner and many of the shop’s other regular customers, it’s really more about the man holding the scissors, and the old-school, men-can-be-men atmosphere the shop exudes.
Mr. Werner grew up going to small barbershops like this — convivial, no-frill places where guys congregated to shoot the breeze while they got a cut and shave. So when Jerry Voros, who hired him in 1984 to run the PR department at Ketchum, told him about the subterranean shop on Seventh Avenue, he made an appointment. He’s never looked back
“Ron’s just such a great conversationalist, with a great sense of humor,” says Mr. Werner. “I always hope someone is in the chair when I get there, so I can sit and listen to the conversations going on.”
“He keeps you interested,” agrees Mr. Voros, who at age 80 and 20 years into retirement still gets his hair cut there once a month. Just as endearing, says the Pittsburgh resident, is how he talks to every customer on the same level, be he a wealthy CEO or young college grad barely scratching out a living. Sit in his chair and you’ll get updated on his daughter in Florida or what his three granddaughters are up to. But he’ll also want to hear (and will remember) what’s new in your life, too.
Mr. DeMutis’ business card advertises the shop as a “hair styling center.” But it’s not a place where men get styled so much as neatened up. There’s no hairstyle books to thumb through while you wait for one of the shop’s five black styling chairs to free up –the counter holds copies of Maxim and Playboy — or flat-screen TVs to watch the game. Clipped hair is sucked from customers’ collars with an old-fashioned hair vacuum. For those who need supplies afterward, glass cabinets display no-fuss products from Rofflers.
Every once in a while a customer will ask for a modern do. Just the other day Judy Warchol, a certified cosmetologist who has worked with Mr. DeMutis for 26 years, did a Justin Bieber haircut for the little son of a regular customer.
But generally, it’s a constant stream of buzz cuts, flat tops and business cuts. Mr. DeMutis and his staff, which also includes Richard Dowdle, give straight-edge shaves and trim goatees, mustaches and beards as well.
A change in hairstyles has led many old-fashioned barbershops to go the way of the vinyl record.
“We’re literally a dying breed,” admits Mr. DeMutis, 64, who on a busy day can trim upward of 15 heads with the “clipper and comb technique.” A cut takes about 20 minutes. “Guys are passing on, and new ones aren’t going into the barber business.”
Mr. DeMutis, a Carrick High School grad, didn’t grow up wanting to cut hair. It just so happened that the South Side building where he took accordion lessons was a block away from the now-defunct Steel City Barber Academy, and the owner of the school went to high school with his father.
“So he talked my dad into it,” he says,
His first job after graduating was at a shop in Castle Shannon; by 1970, he was working in a shop in the Triangle Building on Smithfield Street, Downtown. He moved to the Koppers Building in 1972 to work for barber Carmen Rizzuto. The shop opened in 1929, the same year as the green-roofed skyscraper that rises 475 feet above Seventh Avenue. And like the building’s limestone exterior and urbane lobby — designed by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White — it reflects the sleek Art Deco style.
It hasn’t always been so: shortly after Mr. DeMutis started working for Mr. Rizzuto, the original marble walls and elaborate woodwork came down and dropped ceilings bearing fluorescent lights went up. That 1970s look lasted until Beazer Co. took over the building in 1988, and in the process of abating asbestos decided to make over the shop to its original Art Deco style.
Mr. DeMutis, who purchased the barbershop from Mr. Rizzuto in 1993, doesn’t advertise, so new customers typically arrive in one of three ways — word of mouth, a Google search for “traditional barber” or on the heels of their bosses, friends or fathers.
“A lot of guys don’t like going to chains (salons),” he says.
Paul Horan, 43, of Pine, a founding principal of NAI Pittsburgh Commercial real estate company, is typical. His father, Justin, who headed the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce from 1975 to 1994, was a DeMutis regular. When his son got out of school and started working Downtown, he became one, too.
What Mr. Horan appreciates most is Mr. DeMutis’ personality and the easy relationship he enjoys with his customers.