ALAMEDA -- Al's Barber Shop, a place with no telephone and chairs from 1964, has undergone the biggest change that generations of customers can remember, and it's a little bittersweet.

Owner Al Vigna has retired after nearly 61 years, ending an era on Webster Street that began when a basic haircut cost $1.25, excluding tip.

"It's time for someone else," the 86-year-old Vigna said, his Italian accent strong. "This has been my life. Now it's time for a change."

After his retirement became official last month, Vigna taped a notice on his shop window, announcing it was temporarily closed. But that did not stop men from walking in on a recent afternoon when they noticed him sitting near the door.

"Sorry, we're closed," Vigna repeated. "Yes, yes, no haircuts today, we're closed."

Richard Bunker, 43, of Alameda, shook Vigna's hand and wished him well.

"I am so glad that I was passing and saw you," Bunker told him. "I got my first haircut here. My father, Jim, brought me in."

Bunker lifted up his baseball cap to reveal a shaved head. "As you can see, that was a while ago."

When Vigna began cutting hair in July 1953, Dwight Eisenhower was president, gas averaged 20 cents a gallon, and the first issue of Playboy, a future barber shop staple, was about to be published.


Advertisement

The business was then "Doc's Barber Shop," named after Charles "Doc" Garvin, who had taken it over from Kenny Thurman, another barber. A door inside the shop led into the neighboring tavern, allowing customers to enjoy a drink as they waited for a shave or haircut. Some men would slip into the bar and forget to return, Vigna said.

"That's the way it was," he said. "A bar and a barber shop always went together."

The bar is long-gone and Beauty Unlimited, which offers facials, waxes and massages, is now next door. In 1957, Vigna took over the shop at 1502 Webster St. and renamed it after himself. Except for the price of a haircut ($16), little else has changed.

The 1960s-era cash register only rings up to $10. A tonic bottle on a top shelf has a yellowed label that has all but disappeared, and a cardboard sign sifted from a drawer advertises a "scientific facial" at the shop for $2. The business once had a telephone. But Thurman, the original owner, yanked it from the wall because the ringing annoyed him.

"I found it beautiful," Vigna said. "Nice and quiet. You did not get disturbed while you were working."

Saturdays were busy at the shop, he said, especially after an aircraft carrier pulled into the Alameda Naval Air Station and sailors spilled into the neighborhood.

"You get to know people as a barber," Vigna said. "And with most people, you don't need to ask how they would like their hair cut. You can look at them and know what they want."

Born in New York, Vigna was a toddler when his family left the United States and returned to their native Italy.

"It was just before the Depression," Vigna said. "When it hit, there was no work in Italy, times were tough. My father knew he had made a mistake."

Vigna arrived in the United States in 1948, shortly before the Korean War, and was drafted into the U.S. Army. He attended Moler Barber College in Oakland on the G.I. Bill after his discharge.

An uncle, Caesar Grasso, who owned a barber shop on Berkeley's University Avenue, inspired him to become a barber, Vigna said.

"I ended up in Alameda," said Vigna, who lives on Santa Clara Avenue and could walk to work each day, "and I'm still here 60 years later."

Nick Vlahos, co-owner of Oakland's Temescal Alley Barber Shop, bought the business from Vigna and will keep it open as Al's Barber Shop. The walls may get a fresh coat of paint, Vlahos said, but not much else will change, including the capped pipe jutting from the ceiling that dates from when a gas lamp lit the room.

"There's no reason to change things," Vlahos said. "The chairs and the other stuff still works fine."

Vigna said he now plans to spend time with family, including wife Louise, play golf and perhaps bocce ball. He will stop into the shop whenever he needs a trim.

"It's a transition," Vigna said about retirement. "But I am getting more and more used to it every day."

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 and follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.