Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Old-fashioned artistry lives on

Little Italy barber still shaving at 78

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The sun is streaming through the windows on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon and my buddy, Joe Grande, is lying flat on his back, trying to remain motionless as another man holds a wickedly sharp straight-edge razor to his throat.

As you can imagine, Joe is having the time of his life.

"Ooh," he mutters, trying to put his ecstasy into words, "that feels good!"

Fortunately, the man wielding the gleaming razor knows exactly what he's doing.

At 78, Pace (pronounced "Paw-chay") Santilli has been cutting hair for 67 years, including the last 27 in a tiny two-chair barbershop attached to his home at Jessie Avenue and Daly Street near the strip known as Little Italy.

The Italian-born barber's tiny, men-only shop is one of the last places in this city where a guy can get his whiskers scraped off the old-fashioned way, with a straight razor, just like his grandfather did.

For my friend Joe, the owner of Mona Lisa Ristorante, getting an old-school wet shave with hot towels and a straight razor has been on his bucket list for years.

This is not the kind of life-changing experience a real man wants to have on his own, so Joe felt compelled to invite me and our buddy, Bob, along to share the moment.

"I've been meaning to do this for a long time," Joe chirps, "because it's something that's not really being done anymore. It's very rare. When Pace stops, whose going to do it? You just want to capture it because it's not going to be around forever."

That said, our punctual pal Bob is the first one to park himself in Pace's chair, due to the fact that Joe, as always, is about 30 minutes late arriving and I was riding with him.

When we stroll in, Bob is already stretched out, the very picture of relaxation as Pace wraps his manly mug in a hot towel.

"Look," the diminutive barber declares as clouds of steam waft up from Bob's face, "Hot!" From under the towel, Bob's voice croaks: "YES! HOT!'

For a typical old-school shave, Pace wraps your face in hot towels three times to soften the whiskers and because it just feels awesome. "It's the nicest part," Bob declares. "It's like a Roman bath."

Along with the hot towels, there's an old-time brush to slather your face with shaving soap. He shaves twice, once scraping upwards and once downwards. To ensure the blade is, in fact, razor-sharp, he strops it back and forth on a large piece of leather. Finally, there's another hot towel, some manly aftershave, and a cold towel to close the pores.

Stepping into Pace's shop -- which I will guess is about three metres by three metres -- is like a trip back in time. Outside, there's an antique barber pole and inside, the walls are festooned with racks of old-timey tonics, creams and oils.

So small you have to go outside to change your mind, the room is a hive of family activity. While we wait, Pace's wife brings us coffee and cake, and an endless parade of grandchildren and great-grandchildren visits with hugs for the family patriarch.

Technically, Pace retired 18 years ago, but here he is, Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., taking care of his regulars. How many regulars? "I don't know," Pace sniffs. "I've never counted. If I counted, maybe I'd go crazy. Too many."

One of those regulars here today is Clare Lockhart, 71, who has put his head in Pace's hands for 48 years. "We've had a long love affair," he jokes. "We could hardly communicate the first time he cut my hair. He didn't have much English."

This is what the soft-spoken, neatly dressed man in black pants, white shirt and large spectacles has been doing since he was an 11-year-old boy in Italy.

"I went to school for half a day and the other half a day I had nothing to do. So I hung out with an older friend who owned a barbershop. He said: 'I have too many customers; go and put the soap on their faces.' "

And he's been doing that for the last 67 years. When my turn arrives, I warn Pace my wife likes my beard, so maybe, after scissoring away my hair, he could just shave my neck and cheeks. As he lays on hot towels and cool tonics and scrapes my face, he tells me something I've never heard. "Your whiskers easy to do," he chuckles. "They're very soft."

Lost in manly bliss, I politely ask if he'll reveal his secret to the perfect shave. "No," he snorts. "You just have to learn. That's it. No secret. Everything is the old way. The old way is the best."

Speaking of old, Pace's prices haven't changed for years. It's still $10 for a shave and $15 for a haircut. But maybe I shouldn't mention that, because it's not like this busy retiree is looking for more customers.

However, "If I don't enjoy it, I don't do it all these years."

Then he pauses and holds a hand over his chest. "My job is right here," he says, proudly, "Right in my heart."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2013 A2


Updated on Friday, January 25, 2013 at 11:26 AM CST: adds photo

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