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JOE COCO cuts Buzz Barker s hair Friday at Town Fair Barber Salon. (MIKE LUCIA/STAFF )

FREMONT — When Joe Coco finishes a haircut these days, he doesn't just get a tip, he gets a hug.

After 50 years of flat tops and crew cuts, mullets and Caesars, Coco is hanging up his scissors, rerouting his Playboy subscription and selling his barber pole.

Coco, 66, is not just your father's barber. He's your grandfather's barber — a throwback to the days when a haircut included the longest conversation some men would have all month, if they weren't too busy staring at the magazines.

And from the looks of the bottles of wine and boxes of sweets on the counter of his Town Fair Barber Salon in Fremont, Coco's retirement at the end of the month is going to be even tougher on his customers than on him.

Russell DiBari greeted Coco on Friday morning with a wrapped Christmas present in hand.

"You may want to go a little shorter in case I can't find a barber," he told Coco after easing into the barber's chair.

"You know, I've heard that a lot lately," Coco replied.

Coco is as much a friend as a barber, said Garo Mirigian, a retired Fremont schools principal, who has kept coming in even though his hair is receding from front to back.

"With Joe, it's personal. It's not a business," Mirigian said. "He knows everybody by name. He knows how they're doing."

Coco was barely old enough to shave when he started cutting hair. He quit Oakland's Fremont High School after 10th grade to work in his brother-in-law's barber shop.


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Back then, most of the old-timers would wait for a more experienced barber to finish a job rather than trust a kid with what they had left of their hair.

"The old guys were gruff," Coco recalled. "They said, 'He's too young, he's just a kid,' but soon it got to where they were waiting for me."

Coco mastered the basic styles of the '50s and early '60s, but, even though he prefers Sinatra to the Stones, free love and flowing hair were the best thing that ever happened for his career.

"Long hair made my work more interesting," he said. "With all the short cuts, it was the same day after day."

Coco even entered and won competitive hairstyling competitions during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which the models were usually men with long, wavy hair.

Business was good enough for Coco to buy his Fremont home in 1972. Sixteen years later, he bought a shop in the Glenmoor neighborhood, which he later moved to his current location on State Street.

The shop is as much of a throwback as he is. There's a 1950s jukebox with Big Bopper and Buddy Holly songs in rotation, and adult magazines out of children's reach but available for the old gruff guys just like back in the day.

Although Coco's business and clientele have stayed pretty much the same, the hair-cutting business has changed dramatically. Instead of fathers taking their sons to their barbers, mothers and fathers are taking them to unisex salons or chain shops like Supercuts.

"The younger they are, it's almost like, 'What's a barber shop?'"‰" Coco said.

When the other barbers in Coco's shop left a few years ago, he couldn't find anyone qualified to replace them, so he went solo.

"A lot of hairdressers applied, but they weren't knowledgeable about the different kinds of men's hairstyles," he said.

When his landlord decided to raise the rent this year, Coco — aware that there aren't any buyers for a barber shop business these days — decided to call it a career. Dec. 31 will be his last day.

"I just feel like after all these years, being 66, it's time," he said.

For Mirigian, it's time for something far more daunting: finding a new barber.

"I've already been thinking about it," he said. "I don't know where to go to get my next one. I'm at a complete loss. I never thought I'd grieve over losing my barber."

Coco said the feeling is mutual.

"It's all about friendships," he said. "That's what I'll miss the most."

Reach Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002 or martz@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog posts at www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat.