By Jamison Cocklin
It’s just a barbershop — clean, well-lit and modern like any other — but there’s an unmistakable feeling that it’s also a place where the past meets the present.
Each day the lights come on, hair is cut and it’s business as usual.
To hear Dominic Monroe talk about it, though, is to hear story after story.
From one to the next, he doesn’t stop and he’s certainly not short on passion for what he’s done since 1971 when he first opened Dom’s Barber Shop in Poland.
But his stories start long before 1971. As he sits in the very same chair his grandfather-in-law used to cut customers’ hair, his son, John Monroe, gets busy just behind him — a fifth-generation barber himself.
John is cutting the hair of longtime customer Gene Santoro, whose been coming to the shop since it opened.
This was the scene on a recent weekday at the shop, and, in a way, Dominic’s stories are just as much about Youngstown as they are about his life and work.
Dom’s Barber Shop has its roots in 1912, when Dominic’s grandfather-in-law, John Hingel, opened a shop at age 25 on Steel Street in Youngstown.
Hingel’s son, Ernest, inherited that shop and would later be instrumental in helping Dominic open his own place in Poland.
Dominic, 63, can remember the city Ernest cut hair in all those years. It wasn’t much different from the one Hingel came to from Austria in 1907.
There were roaring blast furnaces, smokestacks that dotted the landscape and an orange sky late at night from all the industry. Bustling passenger trains that barreled along the downtown street and the men that would arrive from each shift at the steel mills during all hours of the day and night for a haircut.
“Everyone’s gone except for John and I,” Dominic said, talking about the other barbers in his family.
“Just this morning, I was looking around on my drive in and I said, ‘Wow, look at everything now.’”
Driving in hasn’t been all that easy for Dominic in recent years. A serious illness in 2010 sidelined him.
With his health in decline, he was forced to close the shop for all but a few hours on Friday and Saturday. The customers he calls friends were forced to wait for limited hours or go elsewhere.
It seemed as though more than four decades in business would come to an end by no fault or choosing of his own.
It carried on that way for nearly three years.
In the meantime, his son John, 34, had a successful career in the corporate world, working jobs in oil and gas and private aviation.
Despite his family’s requests to take over the business, John resisted until he was laid-off twice.
“My closest family would just say I was crazy if I didn’t take over my father’s shop,” John said.
“I was in the corporate world; I had paid vacations and I didn’t want to leave.”
Eventually he caved, attended the Akron Barber’s College and trained on the same chairs his father once had.
About two months ago, Dom’s Barber Shop was handed to him and the doors are open full-time.
Things have been slow, but word is spreading, and John finds himself cutting the hair of longtime cus-tomers, their children and their grandchildren.
“I thought it was all coming to an end,” Dominic said as his eyes teared up and he struggled to find words. “All these guys wouldn’t be here to talk anymore. This has gone on for a lot of years. Words can’t begin to express how I feel about this place. Now a new flower has blossomed with John.”
On a recent weekday, customer Dominic Lepore stopped by the shop to chat. As a young bricklayer in the 1950s, Lepore helped build some of the brick tenements and houses that line Pennsylvania Avenue and Wendy Lane in Poland.
As he talked with Santoro, who was getting a haircut, Dominic was quick to remind a reporter that he’s been cutting Lepore’s hair for as long as he can remember.
It reminded Dominic of the relics that hang on his shop walls.
“Point out anything — it all has a story,” he said.
There is a photo of the late Joe Paterno, former head coach of the Penn State University football team, when Paterno was a football player at Brown University in the 1940s. A customer who played with Paterno gave Dominic the signed photo.
There is a Norman Rockwell painting that Dominic purchased from the former Union National Bank for $5, a picture of Abraham Lincoln that Dominic ripped out of a magazine and framed, and even a bottle of Wildroot Cream Oil, an old hair gel made from lanolin, or sheep’s fat.
On a cabinet, just behind the barber’s chair, is an old National cash register with nickel-plated brass that John Hingel used in his shop. On top is a flip-cover and underneath it is a customer counter.
Late at night, when Hingel wanted to tally the day’s customers and count his cash at the shop on Steel Street, he’d come down from his apartment above and light a match to see the small numbers. Turning on a light might risk attracting a late-night customer, Dominic said, and the underside of the cover is still black with soot from the flame of the match.
Next to the register, on the wall, is an old clipping from The Vindicator, which in 1980 sent former reporter Paul Hurley to interview Dominic’s father-in-law, Ernest, about the demise of steel and how it was hurting the barbershop on Steel Street.
Although the city has changed and its economy is no longer dependent on industry, Dominic suspects that interview wasn’t much different than the one he recently participated in.
To him, “Youngstown is a beautiful place,” and the people are the same as they’ve always been.
What being a barber meant to his father-in-law isn’t much different than what it’s meant to Dominic all these years, he said.
People will always need their hair cut and there will always be stories to tell.
Dominic is healthy today, but the setbacks he has experienced in recent years have limited his role in the business. He cuts hair and lends a hand on Fridays and Saturdays.
Most important, though, his shop is still open and it’s in the care of his son.
“Barbering is one of the oldest professions. The thing my dad says is you’re not just a barber; you’re an electrician, a carpenter, a janitor, a nurse or whatever, because you hear all these stories each day,” John said. “There’s not a lot of old-fashioned barbershops anymore, and I want to keep this place the way it’s always been.”