Just after 9 a.m. on a recent summer morning, Joe Lester drives up to the Wissahickon Barber Shop, as he has for over 15 years. He wants to get the first cut of the day.
The shop’s customers are loyal. They are so loyal that the place is in its centennial year, outlasting nearly every business in the area. They are so loyal that they got the park a half block down the street named after the original owner.
Sabatino LaNoce Park is named for the Wissahickon barber who opened for business in 1911. He lived in the same building where he worked at 5113 Rochelle Ave. and raised three sons there. The youngest, Sabatine LaNoce, runs the shop today at age 79.
As with the soon-to-be closed, A.I. Poland Jewelers on Main Street, the Wissahickon Barber Shop recalls another time.
“I’m not from here,” announces Lester. “I’m from Manayunk.”
The distinction might be lost on many of the area’s newer residents, but for the 69-year-old ‘Yunker’ – born and raised – Wissahickon means anything south of Shurs Lane.
He comes down because of Sab, as everyone calls LaNoce.
“He takes his time. He is meticulous. He’ll even still do ears, nose and eyebrows,” he said. Lester’s wife likes Sab’s work too, so he keeps returning.
Nostalgia comes easy in the shop. The chairs are from 1939 and still have leather shaving straps. The Remington cash register needs no electricity. The hair dryer is a hose connected to a grey metal box.
“It’s just antique, but it works the same,” says Jeff Jaroma, LaNoce’s other barber who gives the shop a bit of modern flair with his tattoos and soul patch.
Customers easily recall the way Wissahickon used to be. There was an Oyster House, a shoe maker, a grocery store, the bar was called Shirley’s, and the Wissahickon Barber Shop was an integral part of community life.
LaNoce remembers the shop as at the center of a “little metropolis” settled among butchers, bars, drug stores and, of course, barbers. Committeemen and mill owners came in for shaves on Saturdays (for 10 cents) and with a haircut (15 cents) it was—insert jingle—two bits.
Phil Moyer has been going to the shop for more than 50 years. His father went there too. There were at least five barbers “in town” when he was growing up around the corner, but LaNoce’s place was central. Across the street from the train station and by the bar, the neighborhood’s gravity tilted toward the Wissahickon Barber Shop, which served as a “town house,” according to Moyer.
Born in Sicily, the shop’s founder, Sabatino LaNoce, first cut hair after coming to the America with his uncles. They initially worked for Roma Brothers, which owned a chain of shops in hotels and trains stations. Later, they opened the Wissahickon Barber Shop in a rented space underneath a pool hall next door to its current location. LaNoce served in the army in World War I and as local fire warden during World War II. He was active in the American Legion and the civic life of the neighborhood.
LaNoce Park was dedicated to him at the behest of the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association on June 9, 1984. It’s on the site of the old Wissahickon Elementary School, where his son was once a student. In kindergarten, his son also met Donald Duffy, whose hair he still cuts today.
“In this business, customers are friends,” said LaNoce recently after work.
This was the case in his father’s day when the shop served as a kind of social club at which people played cards, hung out and chipped in to the baseball pool, but it still is today as well. The clientele frequently know each other and share affection for the neighborhood and its grand old institution, the Wissahickon Barber Shop.