Longtime barber watches West Side resurgence

esquire hair salon, vincenzo licari
Grand Rapids barber Vincenzo Licari works with a customer at his Bridge Street NW shop, Esquire Hair Salon. (September 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Vincenzo Licari answered the phone in his barber shop on Bridge Street NW in Grand Rapids on a September morning, talking to a customer he has been seeing for decades.

Licari, the owner of Esquire Hair Salon, is one of the only barbers in the area who still does a straight-razor shave. He’s been doing them for 46 years.

esquire hair salon, vincenzo licari
Grand Rapids barber Vincenzo Licari works with a customer at his Bridge Street NW shop, Esquire Hair Salon. (September 2017)

Looking back, he says he never thought he’d last more than a year on the West Side.

Licari grew up in Sicily, Italy and started an apprenticeship with a barber when he was 9 years old. Other kids would go into the old World War II battlefields and search for scrap metal to sell. Licari’s father wanted to keep him out of trouble after school and set him up sweeping the floor at the barber shop, but he eventually started doing more.

“After a year of working there, one day (my boss) said, ‘Today, you’re going to shave me,’ And I said, ‘I’m 10 years old. I’m going to cut you!’ He said, ‘No.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’m not worried. It’s your face, not mine.'”

He nicked his boss that day, but he says it was the last time he ever cut anyone during a shave.

His family decided to move to the United States years later, hoping for more opportunity for work and growth. Licari, then 21, struggled to become licensed as a barber in the U.S. due to the language barrier.

“I did the shave and the cut and on and all this work — fine, I passed that. When we come to the oral test, (my interpreter and I) missed two questions too many. We did 63, we were supposed to do 65, so for two questions, the president of the board sent me to a barber college,” Licari said.

That cost him $2,000. But teachers immediately realized that Licari — who at the time had 12 of experience — had nothing to learn from them and in fact knew more than some of the teachers, so the board issued him his license without any further testing.

Licari didn’t start out on the West Side. He worked with two other barbers first and saved enough money to open his own shop, for which he found space on Bridge Street. He didn’t expect the difficulty that followed in convincing his customers to follow him. The problem, he said: panhandlers.

esquire hair salon, vincenzo licari
Esquire Hair Salon on Bridge Street NW in Grand Rapids. (September 2017)

“I’ll tell you, it was hard that first year. … Most of my customers didn’t want to come over here because they were afraid. People drinking would ask you for a nickel, a dime, you know? … There used to be a bar on the corner there,” Licari explained.

He said the panhandlers were harmless, which his clients eventually realized. Then they started spreading the word about his shop.

“I don’t like to give up so easy, you know, so I said, ‘I’ve got to try more,'” he said. “And I stayed and about a year later, people start to come — voice by mouth and send more people and build up the business.”

Many years later, the West Side is changing in ways Licari never imagined, with a New Holland Brewing restaurant across the street and work underway on a new Meijer grocery store down the road.

“I’m happy that it happened now when I’m here, because I would be kind of sad if it happened afterwards,” Licari said. “I always prayed this would be a nice corner and finally it happened. This West Side is a big A+ from what it used to be.”

There’s no need to ask Licari what he plans to do when he retires, because he doesn’t plan to.

Working on a customer he’s seen for the last 40 years, Licari joked, “I think there’s one person that’s going to retire me for good — the one that’s up there,” he said as he pointed up. “When they retire me, I’ll be retired for good.”

His customer replied, “Oh, good. I guess that means I don’t have to find another barber.”