Tony Balzano and Andy Balzano will retire on Jan. 28 after 53 years of barbering on Main Street. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Barbers named Balzano have been clipping hair and shaving faces in downtown Riverhead for 62 years. But come Jan. 28, brothers Tony and Andy will be giving their last haircuts at the barbershop opened by their father Jerry in 1970, when he moved the business from the Peconic Avenue shop he opened in 1960.

“All good things must come to an end,” Tony Balzano said yesterday afternoon during a break between customers at Main Street Haircutters. He had been hanging a string of Christmas lights along the wall above the mirrors facing each of the barber chairs that line one side of the shop. He looked around and smiled. “That’s what they say.”

The brothers worked as shoe-shine boys at their father’s barbershop on Peconic Avenue. He moved to the shop’s present location in 1970.

Tony began cutting hair alongside his dad full-time in 1971. Andy joined them full-time in 1979. They’ve been standing behind the barber chairs there ever since.

Main Street Haircutters changed to an appointment-only business model after the COVID pandemic hit, allowing them to control the number of people in the barbershop at one time. They discovered they like the new pace. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Balzano brothers have seen a lot of changes over the decades — in hairstyle preferences and on Main Street. They’ve managed to successfully navigate changing tastes and the changing business landscape, even through a pandemic that brought commerce to a screeching halt in March 2020, dealing a devastating blow to small businesses, many of which would not recover.

Main Street Haircutters survived COVID, but the pandemic brought a fundamental change to the way the business operated: by appointment only. Until the pandemic struck, it was first-come, first-serve, the way most traditional barber shops operated.

The shop would nearly always be crowded with men waiting for a haircut.

“There’d be guys sitting on the steps, the whole place would be full,” recalled Andy. They’d sit on the bench seat that spans the length of the wall opposite the work stations, reading the paper, talking, bantering — and smoking.

The air was always smoky, Tony recalled. Men would even smoke while getting their haircuts, seated in barber chairs that have small ashtrays built into an armrest. It’s not a pleasant memory for Tony, who was never a smoker. “It’s hard to even imagine that today,” he said.

“We tried going by appointments in 1987,” Tony said. “And it was a disaster for us back then. Horrible. We lost most of our business within six months. It just didn’t work for our customers,” he said.

“It was a different world,” Andy said.

Cleaning out the closets in the shop where the Balzanos have done business since 1970 has turned up a lot of long-forgotten ‘treasures.’ Here, Tony Balzano shows off two old metal hand-held hairdryers — each weighing several pounds. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“Back then, we had a lot of working guys. They couldn’t get off the jobs. They couldn’t allot a certain time, a month away, for a haircut,” Tony said.

“They did the drive-by,” Andy added, referring to their customers’ common practice of driving past the shop to see how crowded it was inside before deciding whether to join the queue.

“Today, everybody is on a schedule. Everything is by appointment,” Tony said. “People even schedule picking up cups of coffee,” he mused.

When pandemic restrictions were eased and they were able to reopen the barbershop, their customers didn’t resist the idea of appointments, which were necessary to maintain social distance inside the barbershop. The new appointment-only schedule made workdays more manageable and predictable for the Balzano brothers as well.

Changes they’ve seen on Main Street over the years are also reflective of how the world has changed. Retail stores left downtown districts for shopping centers on highways like Route 58. Small retailers struggled to survive in a market dominated by discount chain stores. Shoppers flocked to malls.

There aren’t many multigenerational businesses that stretch back decades still operating on Riverhead’s Main Street now. Tony counts them aloud: “Long Island Ice and Fuel, Griffing Hardware, Papa Nick’s,” he says, pausing, “…us. I think that’s it.” [Editor’s note: Cliff’s Rendezvous, Riverhead Vacuum and Sewing Center, Wedel Sign Co. and Michael’s Liquors are also members of this group.]

The barbershop today finds itself surrounded by yet another transition on Main Street with the recent construction of apartment buildings downtown. Jerry Bolzano’s original shop, then called the Riverhead Barbershop, was located on a portion of the property where Summerwind Square, the first multi-story apartment building downtown, was built on Peconic Avenue a decade ago. The barbershop was razed, along with a former nightclub, Club 91, to make way for the new development. Another multistory apartment building, Peconic Crossing, was built across from Main Street Haircutters.

Even with all the changes, “Riverhead has been great to us through the years,” Tony said yesterday.

Chris Sarlo of East Hampton sits in Andy Balzano’s chair for a final haircut today. He’s been coming to Riverhead for haircuts for 20 years. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Balzanos have a large roster of customers. They began telling them last month about their plan to retire. It’s not been an easy thing to do. Both Andy and Tony have customers they’ve been serving for 50-plus years. In many cases, three, even four, generations in the same family have had a Balzano cutting and styling their hair.

“You build relationships,” Tony said. “You get to know each other, each other’s families. I have a lot of customers who know the names of my seven grandchildren,” he said. “And I know the names of their grandkids. I’m going to miss that.”

Saying goodbye is going to be very difficult, as the brothers are already learning.

Chris Sarlo of East Hampton has been coming to Riverhead to have Andy cut and style his hair for about 20 years. He’ll be away and won’t return in time for one more haircut in the shop that feels like home. Sarlo sat in Andy’s chair for the last time yesterday.

As Andy snips, barber and customer chat comfortably like the old friends they’ve become. When his cut is finished and it’s time to leave, Sarlo grips each of the brothers’ hands for a long time as they bid each other farewell.

“It’s not easy. But it’s time,” Tony said after Sarlo left.

Andy will turn 73 in February and Tony will be 70 in March. They’ve been working long days on their feet for more than half a century.

“It’s time for us to sit down,” Tony said with a grin, and Andy laughed and nodded his agreement.

Neither plan to move to a warmer climate in retirement. Brooklyn-born, they’ve lived in eastern Suffolk since childhood, when Jerry opened the Riverhead Barbershop in 1960 and moved his family to the country. Andy lives in Riverhead with his wife Michele. Tony lives in East Moriches with his wife Aileen. They each have adult children — four between them, who had no interest in the family business and instead pursued careers in education, finance and music— and grandchildren.

“We love it here. This is home,” Andy said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Except on vacation, of course. They enjoy traveling and love the beach. They’re both planning tropical getaways with their wives and will be heading out for a well-deserved break immediately after they close the barbershop.

“The next day,” Andy said, laughing. He’ll be Bahamas-bound.

“He’s going to Exuma on the 29th and I’m going to St. Martin on the 29th,” Tony said. The brothers shared a laugh.

But first, they have to get through the next two months, all the “last haircuts” and goodbyes, cleaning out closets, trying to decide what to do with tools of the trade that long ago fell out of use. The dark recesses of one closet turned up a box that held several of their father’s razors, meticulously packed away in individual boxes and a set of manually operated hair-trimmers. It required strength and coordination to use those trimmers, Tony noted, to be able to make the trimmer’s blades move fast enough that they didn’t grab and pull the customer’s hair.

Tony also discovered two metal hand-held electric hair dryers, each weighing several pounds.

Among the treasures recently uncovered was a laminated page from the April 1, 1970 edition of Suffolk Life Newspaper, a free weekly that ceased publication in 2008. On page 7A is an advertisement announcing the new location of Riverhead Barbershop at 36 West Main Street, “opposite Riverhead Savings Bank, beckoning “men who are going places” to come in for hair styling — because “Hair today is as important as clothes.”

It features photos of white-coated barbers working their magic, styling hair “to your personality and image.” Don’t just settle for an ordinary haircut, the ad says, when you can “have the hair treated right.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect additional businesses among the multigenerational businesses that are still operating on Riverhead’s Main Street that were not included in the original note in the body of the story.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.