Woog’s World / Tommy Ghianuly was a barber, neighbor and friend
In 2019, barber shops seem so 1959.
These days, men don’t get haircuts. We get “styled.” Fades, fohawks, pompadours, man buns — you name it, someone will create it for you. And charge you handsomely for the privilege.
This is particularly true in a place like Westport. We’re constantly searching for the newest trend, the freshest look. We like everything sleek and modern, and that includes personal services and the places they’re delivered.
But we also think of ourselves as not just another affluent suburb. We fancy ourselves a small town, a community, a place where tradition counts for something and old values mean a lot.
Which is why all of Westport mourns the death of Tommy Ghianuly.
Tommy was a barber. He owned Compo Center Barber Shop — the unpretentious spot with the equally basic name, that’s almost as old as the strip mall itself.
Tommy opened his barber shop 60 years ago. Tommy, a Bridgeport native and Navy vet, was not sure he could make it here. But he was a good barber. Westport was booming. New York Mad Men and Wall Streeters, local artists and cops, little kids and teenagers — they all needed haircuts.
Yet Tommy did more than just cut hair. He was a natural raconteur, and an equally good listener. Both qualities served him well.
He adapted with the times. He survived the 1960s when no one got their hair cut. He added female barbers. He knew how to give customers whatever kind of looks they wanted — if, that is, they didn’t trust him enough to tell them what looked good.
Tommy was much more than a barber. He was a confidante. He was a friend. He was Westport at its best.
Tommy loved local history. The walls of his shop were filled with framed photos from Westport’s past. An 1880s blizzard, a horse trough near Main Street, old buildings — all paid homage to the town Tommy adopted, and that welcomed him as one of their own.
There were other photos on Tommy’s wall too. He was particularly proud of the ones showing him with three, even four generations of customers. There was no better proof that he was part of this community and that he was loved and respected for what he did in and for it.
For 60 years, day after day with thousands of small acts, Tommy earned that love and respect. Sitting in his chair was a respite from whatever else was happening at work, with your family, or in Westport and the world.
Tommy asked questions, but never pried. He kept confidences. He talked about himself, but always humbly. He’d mention famous names he knew, like Frank Sinatra, Michael Douglas and Anthony Quinn, but never boastfully. They were all just people.
Some longtime customers never knew that Tommy was a gifted artist. Or that he raised bonsai trees.
And unless you or a family member were recipients of his generosity, hardly anyone knew that Tommy often visited customers who could no longer come to him. He traveled to private homes, hospitals and nursing facilities. He cut hair, gave shaves and provided a bright light in an otherwise dark time.
One man whose father was in the Jewish Home for the Elderly said Tommy came every other day, for months. That was Tommy at his finest. In other words, that was typical Tommy.
I can tell these stories about Tommy because he was my barber. He began cutting my hair when I was 12 (back then, I had plenty of hair to cut). He did more than watch me grow up. He helped me grow by showing, through his quiet example, the importance of community, continuity and doing the simple things right.
I first went to Tommy because my father did. They had a special relationship (of couse, every relationship Tommy had was special). My father loved to talk. When he made a haircut appointment, Tommy always blocked off the next time slot too. He never charged him for the lost time; he also never told my father. I found out only after he died. Tommy told me then, with tears in his eyes, for his old friend.
Today many Westporters have their own tears. Tommy died this month at 83. He’d been sick for a while. He kept his shop going though, for two reasons: his customers, and his barbers. To the end, he always though about others.
Tommy’s death has made us think about him. We reflect on his 60 years in Westport, on his quiet, steady presence and the difference he made in so many lives. We miss Tommy Ghianuly: our barber, our neighbor, our friend.