By Jamison Cocklin
For Lou Leonelli, running a business is about more than making money.
Since 1988, his small barbershop, The Blade, has been tucked discreetly next door to the Lanai Lounge on South Avenue. It’s hardly noticeable to the cars passing by each day, but once a customer steps through the doors, they know without a doubt they’re in Youngstown.
On a recent afternoon, Leonelli was playing host to some recognizable faces. P.J. Fecko and John D’Apolito were on hand for a haircut and neck shave, respectively. Fecko, the head coach of Cardinal Mooney’s football team, met Leonelli through D’Apolito, his assistant coach, who happened to go to school with Leonelli’s daughter.
“How ya been, P.J.?,” Leonelli asked as his customer sank into the chair for a quick touch-up.
“Good — the jokes are a little tame today, though,” Fecko replied as four other regulars erupted in laughter, knowing full well that their impromptu clubhouse was under the watchful eye of a reporter and photographer.
The exchange also saw Jeff Chrystal, the Overture restaurant’s five-star executive chef walk through the door. He had a fresh loaf of hot bread for the group. Suddenly, it wasn’t a barbershop — the air smelled of rosemary and dough — the mood was relaxed, and it was evident that Leonelli was not among customers, but with friends.
At The Blade, this is business on a daily basis, a clique of close friends and loyal customers that gather round Leonelli as he practices a craft that has changed dramatically over the decades.
“We’re all brothers here, we just happen to have different mothers,” Leonelli said, as he sat on a plush leather couch in the corner of his neat shop, gesturing to everyone in the room. “It’s like an extension from the South Side of Youngstown. We all grew up together, played ball together.”
The group included Bill and Pat Chrystal, Jeff’s brothers. Leonelli’s brother, Phil, also had decided to swing in for the gathering. For the most part, the group is a loose contingent of alumni from St. Dominic School and Cardinal Mooney.
Of course, Leonelli has plenty of other customers.
“You know, most of these guys used to work in steel mills, but today they own their own businesses — times are just better, it seems,” he said. “We’re by appointment only, but we’re happy to take anyone from the community.”
In a way, Leonelli describes his business as one that mirrors not only theSFlbcity, but the times throughSFlbwhich he grew as a barber.
After a short stint at a barber’s school in Akron, Leonelli began cutting hair in 1973. He’s occupied spaces at both Eastwood and Southern Park malls. When he first started, Leonelli said men were wearing their hair longer. With each wave of trends and culture, Leonelli has permed, straightened and even colored hair over the years.
But these days, he says men have become more refined than ever. His style of cutting has shifted from what he described as “clipper cuts,” which found men favoring comb-overs and slicked back hair, to “sculptured cuts” that provide a clean, precise look with more style.
“Guys have gotten more particular with their hair, buying more product and gels,” he said. “Younger guys are coming in every other week. Usually it was girls going to the beauty shop, but guys are taking more care of themselves — they actually shower once a day now.”
In fact, a recent survey from Socked, an online retailer and website for men in the United Kingdom, found that men will spend an average of 75 minutes washing, shaving and styling themselves before the day starts, while women take 70 minutes.
So how do Leonelli’s customers feel about his cutting skills?
“He messed up Jeff’s hair real bad,” said Bill, as he jokingly pointed toward his brother, who was clearly thinning out on top.
To this, Leonelli explained that it can be difficult to get a straight answer from his clientele. Yet, it was clear that those in the shop would not let another stylist or barber touch their heads, or even come close.
In 1988, along with his wife, Leonelli opened The Blade. It was that year he also went to cosmetology school to further hone his skills.
Today, the shop offers a dying art in providing all customers with a neck shave. For those who truly want to get old-school, Leonelli provides a hot-towel shave with a straight razor. Steam from the towel preps the skin and opens the pores. After Leonelli sharpens the blade on a thick piece of leather attached to the chair, it’s about as close as you can get, he said.
The service is so popular among younger men that The Blade is offering classes on straight shaves once a month. Leonelli explained that the practice is gaining popularity with “younger guys buying more straight razors.”
Overall, the shop is a Monday-through-Sunday commitment for its owner, where Leonelli puts in about 60 hours per week. To him, it’s all worth it.
“I always knew I wanted to be a barber,” Leonelli said. “Everybody hangs out here — it’s a clubhouse more than anything else.”