After 50 years in the barbering business, Vito Fulciniti has hung up his scissors and clippers. Knowing his commitment to his customers, Elmwood Avenue, and his own family, I decided to reach out to Vito, to ask him about his profession, and his life in Buffalo.
But first things first, I wanted to know if he was enjoying his retirement.
“I miss everyone,” he told me. “If I think about it, I might cry. I came to Buffalo in 1970 and finished in 2020 – that’s 50 years.”
Vito told me that he hasn’t been doing much since retiring due to the pandemic, but when it’s safer to travel he plans on going on some adventures.
If there’s anyone that deserves some adventures, it’s Vito. He told me that for 50 years, he was committed to his barbering… to his clients. That’s a lot of standing around a barber’s chair! You might say that Vito was born to be a barber – it was always in his blood.
Vito was born in Calabria, Italy in 1942.
“It was a tough time,” he told me. “My father died two months after I was born – he died in the war under Mussolini. I had a brother and a sister – there was no money, no running water or heating, no sewers. We had nothing. Toward the end of the war, when we were liberated, I qualified to come to America because my father had passed away in the war. I needed a sponsor – my uncle, but he was not married, so the American consulate said that I couldn’t go. But they kept my name on the list, and finally after 20 years they said that I could come to America. There still were no jobs in Italy – no one was making money. I was about to get married, but they said that if I was married I could not come to America. Also, my mother had to go first, so that I could go. So we postponed the wedding and I went to America and got a Green Card. Then I went back to Italy and got married. Once I was married, I could bring my wife back to America… it was crazy immigration rules back then.”
In 1969, Vito first came to Buffalo. He had an uncle who was a construction worker, and older cousins who had come ahead of him. At the time, Vito knew that he wanted to practice barbering. “But it was 1970, and no one was getting hair cuts!” said Vito [laughing]. Everyone was growing their hair… it was the style. I was working for a barber at the time, and he said that there wasn’t enough work for the two of us, so I had to go. I almost got a job at Bethlehem Steel, but I knew that I needed to be a barber. I got a job at Freezer Queen, working nights, but I wasn’t making very much. I went to work at another barber, and he ended up selling me his barber shop. At the time, I didn’t understand the language, but I could understand what people wanted. I went to the National Institute for foreign people to learn a language, but only the basics. I learned more about the language from working as a barber, as I was forced to speak.”
The shop that Vito bought turned out to be on Elmwood Avenue, next to Mother Nature flower shop. He said that he wanted to buy the building, but he couldn’t afford it. The owner of the flower shop ended up purchasing the building, which is when Vito moved across the street, into a former barber shop that was vacant. That would be the same shop that he would operate for decades to come. Vito The Barber had finally arrived.
One day, one of his customers offered to sell him the post office building across the street (eventually home to Celelia’s Restaurant), and Vito said that he couldn’t afford it. But the customer persisted, telling Vito that he would help him to make his dream of owning a commercial property come true. With a little money down, and an agreement from the customer to hold the mortgage, Vito was suddenly living the American dream.
“What can I say about the people in Buffalo?” asked Vito. “They are the best! Everyone always wanted to help. They always wanted to know if I needed anything. They would even offer to sweep the shop.”
Eventually, someone purchased the building where Vito was barbering. It was at that point that the new owner made a deal with Vito. If Vito would sell him the old post office building (Cecelia’s – future home to Lloyd Taco), he would give Vito free rent at the barber shop for five years. It sounded like a good deal for Vito, who agreed on the arrangement.
“Thank God I did that before the pandemic,” Vito remarked. “I knew that the time had come to close the business at that point. The pandemic sped the process along. Open, close, open, close… thank God that no one got sick at the shop. I did everything I could to stay open for as long as I could. There were so many people that were sorry to see me go. I’m 78 years old now, with two boys, and 5 grandchildren. It’s time that I spent more time with my family.”
I asked Vito to tell me about some thoughtful and memorable moments, upon which he said, “I have had a boring life [laughing]. There were a few trips to Italy, but I was working all the time, open from 8am to 6pm for many years. At the same time, it was the best, being my own boss. I tried once to have someone work for me, and it turned out that he was a terrible barber – that was the last time that I ever hired anyone.”
Vito did say that he owed so much of what he has today, to his wife. “She took care of everything and everybody. She was 19 and I was 28 when we first came here. Our first house was a double, but we sold that and bought a single, which was much easier. I never got rich, but was able to buy a house, and then a bigger house. Now I live in a big house, and it’s just me and my wife. I couldn’t have done it without her – I can’t function without her.”
In the end, Vito said that getting to America was tough. “It was worth the wait though. Everything worked out for me. It’s funny – the first customer that I ever had, from day one – his name is Michael Martin. He turned out to be the last customer that I ever had when I closed the shop. If that doesn’t tell you about my experience in Buffalo…”
As for me, Vito left me with some food for thought, as we wrapped up our conversation. “Your dad was a great customer of mine,” he told me. “One time he paid me in advance for you to get your hair cut because he didn’t like that you were growing it long… but you never showed up! [laughing].
It’s funny, I do remember my dad telling me that Vito was patiently waiting to give me a good old fashioned cut, but I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
Now I know.
Ci vediamo, Vito