Tony Sarica was in the middle of one of his famous stories — talking a mile a minute — while his longtime client, Sharon Papa, sat in the barber’s chair. Sarica held bits of Papa’s hair between the fingers of his left hand and wielded scissors in his right, gesturing with them as he fondly recalled the time he and some friends slept overnight in an airport because The Beatles were scheduled to pass through it.
Papa, who is almost 64 and has been Sarica’s client since she was 17, turned around in her chair. “He’s crazy,” she said, smiling. “But I wouldn’t go to anyone else.”
“There are a lot of crazy hairdressers,” Sarica replied, grinning as though he took the statement as a compliment.
Sarica recently marked 46 years as a hairdresser — 43 of them in Lynbrook. His stories have kept clients such as Papa coming back for decades. “I told him that when he retires, he’s coming to my house,” Papa said.
In 1974, when he was 23, Sarica bought a two-story building on Merrick Road across the street from Lynbrook North Middle School for $30,000. There he opened his own shop, Tonsorial Artists.
“It was called the hippie cleanup years,” he joked, “because people were getting their first hair cut in seven or eight years.” Sarica said that within months of the shop’s opening, his client base grew to 500 people, and appointments were made weeks in advance.
These days, he barely resembles the person from the ’70s. A thinning hairline has replaced a curly bush of hair. His mustache is thinner. Standing at 5 feet 3, he joked that he keeps shrinking.
One thing that has not changed, however, is his penchant for telling stories and joking with children. He said he once told a little girl that the reason there are waves in the ocean is because fish flush the toilet after going to the bathroom. She believed him, he remembered.
“Tony has kept us laughing for a long time now,” said Lenore Grasso, the owner of Trilogy Hair Salon, where Sarica has worked for nearly 15 years. “Everybody loves him. He’s part of the family.”
Sarica, who grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, and now lives in Oceanside, joined the Army at age 17, at the height of the Vietnam War, but was never called into combat. After the service, he was unsure what to do next, but haircutting always seemed intriguing. “I hated my hair as a kid ’cause it was curly,” he said. “I thought if I become a hairdresser, I’ll learn what to do with it.”
Sarica opened his shop after working at other salons in Cedarhurst and Elmont. After the Army, he thought about learning a different trade before committing to hairstyling. “I went to an auto body place,” he said. “As soon as I walked in, it smelled like a metal shop or a subway. When I walked into the hair place, there were all these beautiful girls. It smelled like hair spray. I said, ‘I like this.’”
Over the years, famous clients came to him, including Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snider and former Yankees first baseman and outfielder Joe Pepitone. “He had a wig,” Sarica recalled of Pepitone. “I used to cut his wigs. I would cut his family’s hair. He was bald. He had kinky hair and he wore an Elvis wig.”
After 29 years at his Lynbrook shop, Sarica sold it. Both of his parents died young and he had three siblings who didn’t live past 60, so he felt the time was right. “When I was 52, I said, ‘Why kill myself?’” he said. “I’m 67 next month and I’ve got no issues. … I should have been dead, so that’s why I sold. But I’m not sorry. I saved enough in case I didn’t die.”
He began working at Trilogy, located at 42 Lincoln Place, in 2002. Sarica explained that he is in “the cocktail hour” of his life and wants to enjoy his free time. The stresses of being the owner, landlord and hairstylist at his old shop are gone. Though he once went 28 years without taking a day off, he said he still managed to have fun. “I was like the John Belushi of my family,” he said. “They all went to church and didn’t do drugs and had families. I was always single and wild.”
Sarica said he doesn’t see himself retiring soon. He still enjoys working with his clients — some of whom he has bumped into while vacationing in other countries. Though he is unlikely to camp out in an airport again, he has enough stories to last a lifetime — such as the time a friend nearly got arrested after streaking on an airplane, running up and down the aisle — and he frequently enjoys telling them to his clients.
Haircutting remains a part of Sarica's life even when he is not in the shop. He said he still has an old barber’s pole from his former business, which he uses as a living room light. He added that he also still enjoys the children, who keep him in the industry.
“I could talk to kids all day,” he said. “They’re not short on opinions and solutions and whatever you get into with them. You can talk to them about anything.”