By John Toole
---- — PLAISTOW — The barbershop experience is as much about the art of men conversing as it is about a little off the sides.
Traditional barbershops, where men still rule and conversation matters as much as the cut, is one of “603 Reasons” why people think New Hampshire is special.
Tony Santagate, owner of The Barber Shop on Main Street, isn’t surprised “barbershops where you can get all the local gossip,” showed up at No. 468 on the list of “603 Reasons.”
But he said he tries to avoid a couple of topics with his customers.
“We don’t get into politics or religion,” he said. “Everyone has a personal preference. We respect your preference.”
Sports is another matter.
“Baseball, football, hockey — everyone wants to talk about those things,” Santagate said.
Conversation isn’t for every customer.
“Some like to talk, some like to get their haircut and leave,” Santagate said.
Barbers respect that, too, and they learn to listen to what’s on the customer’s mind.
“They can spend $90 an hour for a therapist or they can spend $14 here,” he said.
Good barbers never try to solve problems.
“We listen and we try to let them decide what the right answer is,” Santagate said.
Bob Jacobsen of Hampstead followed Santagate from his old shop in Hampstead when the barber opened this one in Plaistow seven years ago.
He recalled his wife saying his hair looked good the first time Santagate gave him a haircut. So he kept coming back.
“We’ve had a good time,” Jacobsen said.
“We hit it off like family,” Santagate said.
The two will talk about what’s happening around town and with their mutual acquaintances, and crack a few jokes.
“You know the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut?” Santagate asks.
“Two weeks,” he answers, gesturing with two fingers upheld.
Santagate and Jacobsen are playing a little verbal ping pong as Santagate’s associate, James Clogston, tends to Jacobsen’s locks.
The conversation plays out beneath a wood carving of a bear, the American flag, a framed Red Sox poster commemorating the 2004 World Series team.
There are personal touches around the shop, where Santagate is relaxing in a barber chair.
Pictures of the new grandchildren, twins Isabella and P.J., age 7 months, are on the counter. Some watercolors by son Rob, an artist in Key West, are displayed.
A sign shows haircut prices, last revised in 2006.
Jars contain Tootsie pops and bubblegum for younger patrons.
“That’s their treat after their haircuts,” Santagate said.
The TV is seldom turned on, a radio sometimes provides background music.
Santagate grew up in Malden, gave haircuts across the street from Boston City Hall, had a shop in Medford.
Fifty years of cutting hair provides a special education.
Santagate recalls some shady customers, but won’t name names, even when baited by Jacobsen.
“Whitey Bulger?” Jacobsen needles from the corner chair.
“I won’t give any names,” Santagate responds out of respect for the barber’s unwritten code of confidentiality.
“A barber shop is a sacred place,” he said. “Whatever is said here, stays here.”
Santagate sees the personal touch as what’s most important for a good barbershop.
“The personality of the barbers,” he said. “Having a personal relationship with the customers.”
Clogston observes whether someone chooses a barbershop or a fancy hair stylist depends on how they were brought up.
Santagate nods in agreement.
“I’ve had fathers, sons, grandchildren through generations,” he said. “Three or four generations of families I’ve been doing.”
He is at his trade long enough that Santagate has witnessed the return of short hair. A new wrinkle this year is an increase in customers needing beards trimmed.
“There are a lot of beards with the Red Sox,” he said. “People are growing beards.”
Santagate is in a reflective mood as he approaches age 75 amid some health challenges.
“People are so nice and supportive,” he said. “The power of prayer does work.”
He has one wish for his customers.
“Live for today,” he said.
Santagate is still disappointed someone stole his barber pole a few years ago. It never was recovered, but it was replaced.
But he has few other regrets from a life lived inside the gossip and conversations of the barbershop.
“It’s been an enjoyable run for 51 years,” Santagate said.