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Trimmed county airport traffic cuts into barbershop's clientele

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

By A.J. Caliendo

There was a time when a barbershop was not just a place to get a shampoo and a cut and style. It was a gathering spot, a sort of informal gentlemen's club with no dues and few regulations.

Barber Leo Gigliotti jokes with customer Chuck Campbell of Elizabeth Township as he cuts his hair in the tiny barbershop at Allegheny County Airport. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

In the cluttered room behind the red and white striped pole lay a refuge from the pressures of work and home. There the guys could discuss sports, cars, neighborhood gossip and "the one that got away" without fear of being told to get back on the job or to mow the lawn.

Today those barbershops have been replaced by unisex, art-deco, by-appointment-only boutiques lined with $40 bottles of hair-care products, or by cookie-cutter chains where a customer is lucky to get the same stylist twice in a row before he or she disappears forever.

But one West Mifflin barber has gone back to his occupational roots after years of operating a stylish boutique in Century III Mall.

Leo Gigliotti is only the second proprietor in 73 years of the barbershop just inside the main entrance of the Allegheny County Airport. The two-chair, closet-sized enterprise, which sports a photo of a barber pole in lieu of the real thing, is just right for the 75-year-old retiree. The two red barber chairs and two scarlet shampoo sinks that he brought from his shop at the mall are the only remaining hints of a modern boutique.

Since commercial flights no longer go in or out of the airport, Gigliotti's customer base, largely made up of regulars who have been coming to him for years, demands that the shop be open only about 12 hours per week.

"I want this to keep me busy a few hours a day," said Gigliotti, who has been cutting hair since he was a 13-year-old boy in Calabria, Italy. He moved here with his mother and brother in 1946.

Gigliotti contends that the airport itself is too deserted these days to support even a part-time business. "If I depended on the people who work here, I'd be in the poorhouse."

Of course, the Allegheny County Airport was not always so sparsely populated. George Oeler of West Mifflin, an airport historian of sorts by virtue of the fact that "I've been loafing around for years," claims that the airport barber shop was a hot spot in the days when it was owned by former Mt. Lebanon barber Jimmy Felice.

During Felice's 50 years of operation from 1935 to 1985, travelers and airport personnel kept the barbershop hopping, recalled Oeler, a regular customer of both the previous and current owners.

"There were so many pilots who got their hair cut in there that Jimmy became an authority on aeronautics," he said. "Later, if you would say something about aviation that was wrong, he would correct you."

But Gigliotti has no aspirations to learn about flying machines at this late date. Nor is he necessarily staying in business for the money, although he says the little extra he brings in is nice to have. He just likes to keep busy.

"I've had my friends tell me, 'If you don't have to retire, don't. You'll go crazy.' "

Gigliotti is not about to let that happen.

A.J. Caliendo is a freelance writer.

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