A style of his own

Aug. 8 marks 50 years of snipping and clipping for Kamloops barber John DeCicco. While he's not the oldest barber in town, he claims the longest track record.

The trademark blue, white and red pole still marks the entrance to the Continental Barbershop on 300-block Victoria Street.

It has been a beacon to the shaggy haired, the unshaven and those who want to drop in and talk about the latest news or politics.

This is where barber John DeCicco has plied his trade for the past 31 years of his five-decade hair-cutting career.

He still maintains a strong Italian accent that comes with being born and growing up in Sannicandro, Italy. It was there, in his uncle's Barbiere DeCicco shop, where he began his barbering baby steps sweeping up hair and prepping clients for shaves.

He was 15 years old in 1959 when his family immigrated to Kamloops. He went to high school at St. Ann's Academy. Two years later, he was in Vancouver apprenticing as a barber at the Continental Barbershop on Commercial Drive and working at the pizzeria next door.

He got his barber licence on Aug. 8, 1962, and returned to Kamloops to work a few months later.

He worked at a barbershop on 300-block Victoria Street that was next to the long-gone Shamrock Meat Market. Then he went down the street to the Brunswick Barbershop, and eventually he opened his own Continental Barbershop named after the place where he apprenticed in Vancouver.

The Continental went from Victoria Street to Lansdowne to the old Greyhound bus depot before finally settling at its current location at 319 Victoria in 1981.

The plate-glass window at the front of the shop tempts anyone passing by to glance in and see if DeCicco is at work.

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The love of John DeCicco's life, Darlene, won him over when they were just becoming adults with an urn full of coffee and a cake she baked for a Catholic young adults social.

She didn't know how much coffee to put into the urn, so she threw in a whole pound.

"Everyone said, 'Who made the coffee? Is it ever strong.' John said, 'Who made the coffee? Is it ever good.' He still likes his espresso," she recalled.

"Then he asked, 'Who made the cake?'"

She was in Grade 13 at Kam High when they met; he'd just finished at St. Ann's.

"It was love at first sight," she said.

They dated for a couple of years and in 1965, they got married. When he opened up his own barbershop, she put her legal secretary training to use keeping his books on the side.

"I've been his secretary since day one," she said.

Even now, after nearly 47 years of marriage, three children (Lorenzo, Deborah and Michael) and nine grandchildren, he still brags about her baking. And he still likes his coffee strong.

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The days of the old-fashioned, drop-in, no-appointment-necessary shave-and-a-haircut barbershop are dying. Even DeCicco expects they will fade out as unisex salons push the old timers out.

He has kept up with some trends over the years, even taking a two-week permanent course in Vancouver when men in the 1970s decided they wanted their hair curly.

There was a time when his customers came in a lot more often, the early morning arrivals getting a straight-razor shave.

Haircut customers would usually come by every 10 days or so to get their styles trimmed back into shape. Now most of them wait five or six weeks.

That kind of frequency of regular customers made the barbershop a social hub - a perfect place to meet and talk sports, politics or even gossip, said friend and client Joe Stella.

"John cut my hair, my kids' hair and now he cuts my grandkids' hair," he said.

DeCicco said he has had as many as four generations of one family in his chairs, from grandfather to father to son to grandson.

Barbershops have also been traditionally a place of male gathering; women had their beauty parlors, after all. As times have changed, though, women have infiltrated the barbershop as staff and occasionally as clients. (To be fair, men have also moved into salons as cutters and customers.)

DeCicco's public profile got even bigger when he spent 12 years on City council. So did the discussions about current events at the shop.

"I still get people coming in talking about the parkade," he said, referring to a loudly protested proposal to build a parkade on the Heritage House parking lot by Riverside Park.

His equipment hasn't changed much over the decades other than clippers that used to be operated by hand that now buzz electrically, and chairs that used to be stiff and upright that can lean customers back.

DeCicco doesn't get a lot of women in his chair, probably because he doesn't offer services such as colouring or up-do styling.

That said, he does cut his wife's hair.

He has also had a few celebrities under his shears, including wrestler Gene Kiniski, who wore a trademark brush cut, and B.C. Lion Ryan Phillips.

He gets asked by customers for celebrity haircuts, albeit not those sported by Kiniski or Phillips. No, DeCicco gets asked for a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt. So he keeps a book of celebs and their haircuts on hand for reference.

The recent trend toward shorter hair for men has actually sparked a surge of younger clientele for DeCicco in the last few years. They seem to associate shorter hair with the barbershop.

He also gets international students from Thompson Rivers University who come from countries where it's traditional to be shaved by a barber.

But now that his council commitment is done and he has reached retirement age (he turns 68 in December), DeCicco's plans are turning away from the scissors and the shop.

He's not giving it up entirely - at least for a while.

"I plan to ease my way out, go one or two days a week," he said.

"It's social networking as much as it is work."

He and Darlene sold their motor home and hung up their fishing rods when he got so busy with the shop and council. Now they're looking for a new motor home - one with enough power to run a cappuccino machine.


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