Shop Talk

Shop Talk

“I want you to think about the number of people who sat in our chairs,” says Lou Deserio, seated himself in the 45-year-old barbershop and hair salon he operates with his daughter, Louanne Deserio. The chairs are otherwise empty on the Deserios’ day off, and the room is generally quieter given the reopening measures still in place statewide. But even during a pandemic, Deserio’s Haircutting in Branford has been a salon in the classical sense, driven by its namesakes’ curiosity and the sheer diversity of heads they’ve had the pleasure to meet. Louanne notes, “I mean, everybody needs their hair done.”

From a pharmacist, they heard that daily grapefruit consumption lowers cholesterol, and that some cholesterol pills contain the skin of the fruit. Another authority—on deep space optics—had come in for a trim while visiting from Boston. “So they come in here, and what happens is, I start the conversation because I want to learn,” Lou says. “‘What do you do for a living?’” The expert had happily answered, then returned for his next trim with photos taken from the Hubble telescope—of stars, nebulae, whole galaxies. In a minute of conversation before lowering the apron, Lou had exceeded the bounds of his 45-by-16-foot room by light years. Lou also hints at government secrets he might have learned over the decades, purportedly disclosed by G-men with candor you don’t generally associate with G-men.

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Something about sitting in the chair—the soothing sounds of scissors deftly working around your ear; the physical closeness the work entails; all that time you have, comfortably seated, to reflect—opens people up. As I sit in Lou’s chair, he starts by asking when my last haircut was, to calculate how short I like to wear it. He also asks me where I live, where I grew up, and, apropos of the turn our conversation eventually took, where I keep my last will and testament. He then sensibly suggests that I make one—even if I write it on a paper bag—and keep it in a safe place where my wife can find it.

Advice—solicited or not—flourishes in an atmosphere of familiarity, which for the Deserios doesn’t require their clients to be long-timers. Louanne says, “I think being father and daughter helps—or the fact that he might overhear me. We’ll be talking about something. And lo and behold, out of the back, here comes Louie. And Louie is going to put his two cents in whether you want him to or not. And I would say 99.9% of people don’t really care because it’s not a ‘Let me tell you something!’; it is, ‘Can I say something, young lady?’” As with the estate advice, things often get personal. “I feel like I’m more of a psychologist in a way,” Louanne says. “Where people tell me about their situations at home… I know all about their families… I know whose husband’s cheating on them, whose kids are giving them problems, who’s taking care of their parents.”

Louanne started at the shop 30 years ago. If her father had not been a barber when she finished high school, she says she would still have gone to hairdressing school. “I always knew I wanted to do this. Ever since I could remember. I’m very fortunate because who really knows what they want to do?” Lou had gotten his certificate at Bullard-Havens in Bridgeport, a curriculum-rich trade school he credits with not expecting him to know. “When you went to trade school, the first year they made you look at four trades. Your father could have been a carpenter and you said, ‘Oh, I want to be a carpenter.’ Well, part of the year you went to the bakery and you learned how to bake. And guess what happened to the carpenters? They became bakers.”

Lou, too, had first followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a fisherman back when Long Wharf was a district of commercial fisheries. “You think you might want to go out on a fishing boat? On a day like today?” he asks before quickly injecting the fantasy with some reality. “When you were loading fish in the truck, you know what was in the truck with you besides the fish? About 9,000 flies.” As a teen, Lou also frequented a barbershop on his walk home from high school and began to consider the pluses of a career in haircutting. “I could have my own business. It’s neat. I meet a lot of people,” he says. He eventually had crucial help from two men: the owner of the shop, who promised him a job once he graduated from trade school, and the family’s insurance agent, who got him into Bullard-Havens. “One day when I came home, the insurance man was sitting in the kitchen. He said to me, ‘Your mother said you wanted to be a barber.’ I said, ‘Yeah. But we don’t have the money.’ He said to me, ‘My brother-in-law’s the head of the barber union. I could get you into that school for free.’”

Many years later, regular customers who were realtors similarly offered to get Lou into real estate school and take him on once he’d gotten his license. They had sized him up as someone with a knack for selling houses. He took the classes, then worked on nights and weekends when his shop was closed. “I always had more than one job. People would rather stay home and go on their computers or go to bars? I had a second job until probably…” He stops to calculate. “Today,” Louanne chimes in.

Over time, having spent years gathering advice from realtors, insurers, investors and lawyers, then passing it on to other clients, Lou wanted to get it all down on paper. “Life sciences is what I call it,” he says. He had read a bestselling financial guide called The Wealthy Barber, wryly noting that it wasn’t actually written by a barber. He put his version—50 Years Behind the Chair—up on the web, offering it to fathers of newlyweds or clients who worked in prisons, thinking of all the people out there starting from scratch or starting over. He included checklists, glossaries, tips for first-time home buyers and, for good measure, his mother’s meatball recipe.

From his customers, Lou has also gathered what could be called actionable intelligence. He invented a deer repellent called Buck Off after a conversation with a chemist. He designed a pocket tool called the Taskmaster and arranged to have it made at a factory in China, selling inventory in his shop and in convenience stores around Branford. “To be very honest with you, the first one I made was to scratch lottery tickets off… And then I made it into the stylus that touches your phone… I actually brought it to the casinos and said, ‘You should give this away to your customers,’” as a hands-free method for using touchscreen slot machines. Speaking of giving things to customers, he hands me another of his inventions: a skin cream in a bottle. “Anything you want to use it for. Sun block. Shaving.” One of his daughter’s customers, he adds, even used it as a salve for minor burns. After I ask him what the secret ingredient is, Louanne laughs and answers for him. “I don’t even know. He’s not going to tell you.”

Louanne now answers for the business as well. Lou transferred ownership of Deserio’s Haircutting to her five years ago, though he plans to stay on for the remainder of his days. “I’m not going to say it’s too bad that I’m old. But you know what I’m pissed off about? I didn’t learn enough. There’s so much to learn and I’m running out of time.”

Deserio’s Haircutting
554 Main Street, Branford (map)
Tues-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-4pm
(appointment-only during state-mandated phased reopening)
(203) 488-0935

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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