The Ottawa Citizen

After 40 years, No. 885 still draws the regulars

Dave Brown

Unless one was cued to it, you wouldn’t notice there was a quiet sense of celebration happening on Bank Street, the main drag through the Glebe, on the stretch just north of Lansdowne Park.

The bright sun Friday seemed to bring out higher numbers, as people dropped into Ernesto’s Barber Shop at No. 885. But some didn’t seem to need a haircut. Many just wanted to say hello, and indulge in a little playful banter.

Word was getting around. Ernesto “Ernie” Falbo is celebrating 40 years in business, always at the same location. This isn’t just a barber shop. It’s the surviving shop. Forty years ago, there were four men’s haircutters between First Avenue and Lansdowne. Now, hair wise, Ernie owns that stretch.

Most of his customers like to kibitz. On this occasion, longtime customer Stewart Murray, a regular since his high school days, takes a more serious view. “To me, Ernie represents the best of what Canada can be; a place where newcomers can make a new start and build a good life.”

In Ernie’s chair about 11 a.m. was Pete Wightman, and he was in a more playful mood. He confessed to Ernie that he had “cheated” on him. He once got his hair cut by another barber. Then he pointed out he was in Australia at the time. Ernie keeps clipping, and asks why he couldn’t have jumped on an airplane and got a decent haircut.

Wightman is another longtime customer from his days as a student at Glebe Collegiate. “I started coming here, and never stopped. Now my son (Nathanial, 4) gets his hair cut here.”

Sometimes it isn’t easy, says Wightman. “To avoid waiting, I’ll get here before opening time at eight. It isn’t unusual to see other guys here waiting for the door to open, and often they’ve been here since 7:30.”

Senator Jim Munson is a regular. “People always ask me how come I look so young, and I tell them it’s because I know an exclusive hair place.”

He says he’ll keep going there because he wants to continue being the youngest-looking senator. He’s 64, and buys into the suggestion that he looks so young he should get the child rate. “It amazed me when I found out both Ernie and Gerry knew my Italian barber from my early days in radio in Bathurst, New Brunswick.”

On a serious note, Munson says he enjoys the chatter, and pointed out that mirrors in the shop are arranged is such a way, no matter which way you face you can make eye contact.

There were three waiting customers Friday, and two getting cuts. Waiting doesn’t seem to be a problem. The conversations are eclectic. The other barber is Guerino Turano, a 20-year veteran of the shop. Like Ernie, he seems well-informed on a wide range of topics, and likes to shoot from the lip. Both men are from Calabria, in the toe of the Italian boot.

The price list on the wall seems to need updating. Haircuts are $11, and $14 with a shampoo. Haircut and a beard trim are $13. A child’s cut is $9. When it’s suggested his customers are taking advantage of him, Ernie laughs and says he knows that. “When the HST (harmonized sales tax) comes in this summer, I’ll make some changes.”

Next in Ernie’s chair is Gord Bowie, getting the $13 treatment. He has a beard. “In 1975, I lived on the other side of Billings Bridge and walked here one day for a haircut. I just kept coming back. My son Dan (now 23) got his first cut here and became a regular. Ernie adds that Dan is now teaching English in Japan.

Ernie is 67, and arrived in Ottawa direct from Italy in 1967. He spent two years as a cutter on Preston Street, improving his English. In those days when he held out his hand for payment, one had to place in it only $1.25.

Owning his own shop was always the dream. He moved to Bank Street in 1969 and sent for his childhood sweetheart, Fernanda. They raised three children. She died in 1992, and he has since remarried. He and his wife, Yolande, live in the Meadowlands area.

He has another reason for celebrating. Birthday 68 is coming up Feb. 14. As for thoughts of retirement, he picks up the mood of the room and says: “I have so much money now I don’t know what to do with it. (Quiet laughter from the room.) But I like it here.”