Lynn Valley barber shop built on love

A humble barber shop tucked away at the back side of Lynn Valley Centre is a lasting vestige from a simpler time.

Mauro Stagnitta would rise early in the morning in his East Vancouver home nestled in a culturally rich Italian immigrant neighbourhood and make his way over the Second Narrows Bridge.

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On the passenger side seat was a capocollo and cheese sandwich he would eat every day around noon in the barber shop.

Stagnitta opened Lynn Valley Barbershop in 1967, where the mall’s travel agency stands today, with a paesan (countryman) from his native Sicily.

Cutting hair wasn’t how Stagnitta planned to put dinner on the table every night.

In the 1950s Stagnitta had joined a wave of young male Italian immigrants who sought out heavy labour jobs in Canada. Stagnitta settled in a mining community near Nelson, B.C.

When a horrific mining accident almost took his life, it was arranged for Stagnitta to study at Vancouver’s then-premier barber school, with costs covered by workers’ compensation benefits.

And that’s when Stagnitta’s life took a different trajectory. The only occupational hazard he would have to worry about were nicks on his fingers from a straight razor.

Dressed up in red and gold wallpaper, the Lynn Valley Barbershop was a social gathering spot for men in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where they would get their hot shave and talk sports.

Often longing for the old country, Stagnitta would go back and forth between Lynn Valley and San Cono, a small village in the Sicilian countryside known for its growing of prickly pears.

If you think Lynn Valley is where everyone knows your name, consider San Cono is six square kilometres with multi generations of families living under the same roof.

Stagnitta had a beautiful young woman named Maria on his mind when he walked back into the village.

He knew Maria’s family, of course. He also was aware she had many suitors. Stagnitta was the third in line to ask for Maria’s hand in marriage. 

“She actually lucked out because he was really nice,” says Mauro and Maria’s daughter, Silvana, today standing in the barber shop her dad started.

In fact, it's the fourth location of the Lynn Valley Barbershop, which has never left the mall’s footprint.

Silvana had felt lost, career-wise, after graduating from high school.

Even though dad might have had a bit of a bias, he gently nudged his daughter into the family business.  

“So he said, ‘Why don’t you just take the (barbering) course and you’ll always have a job,’” recalls Silvana of her 18-year-old self. “And I was like, (sigh) I guess.”

It turns out she really liked cutting men’s hair and quickly became skilled during her training at Vancouver Community College.

This despite the fact Silvana says it wasn’t “cool” back then to be a barber.

“Because in the ‘80s everyone was doing unisex (hairdressing),” she says. “Guys were starting to go to the higher-end salons. They had longer hair.”

Silvana managed to find her niche as “queen of the mullet.”

Meanwhile, dad and daughter were cutting hair side by side from 1986 to 1991.

“I liked that time I had with him,” recalls Silvana. “I got to know him as a person. He had a lot of clients who really loved him.”

In 1990, at 22 years old, Silvana was in Montreal doing some soul searching. She would come back to Vancouver with a clear head and an unwavering decision: she was ready to devote a career to barbering.

The timing was bittersweet. One month later, Silvana’s life would change forever.

“I got a call to come home because he wasn’t feeling well. Yeah, it was pretty sudden,” says Silvana, choking up.

Mauro had passed away suddenly of a heart attack at 63.

A small comfort was that Silvana had told her dad mere weeks before that she was happy with her life at the Lynn Valley Barbershop.

“So I made that decision and it made him happy too,” she says.  

When Mauro passed away in 1991, Silvana was 23 and left to keep the shop going.

“It was a huge responsibility and I couldn’t have done it on my own. If it wasn’t for the amazing barbers working by my side, keeping the shop feeling like a family business and growing with me as a family I would not be in the place that I am today,” she says.

By her side she had Pat Meek, the first female barber in the shop, who for 33 years “served her clients with her infectious laugh.”

Another longtime employee was John Passeger, who, for 22 years, “never failed to satisfy his customers with his unique old school barbering style and values.”

And then there was Anar Jit, who arrived with 20 years of experience under his belt and shared his “expert technique and precision in barbering” with the staff.

But perhaps the most inspiring story is when Gerardo Leyson showed up at the barber shop's doorstep 11 years ago.

He was 21 and technically unaccredited as a barber. But what he lacked on paper, Leyson made up for with passion.

When he was in Grade 9, Leyson took a pair of scissors to his hair, unsatisfied with the results he was getting at the salon.

He decided to take matters into his own hands.

It turns out the teen had a flair for cutting hair. Even his friends starting taking notice.

Leyson would use “crappy old Walmart scissors” and charge his friends $5 for cuts, or trade for favours.

“The fades weren’t really clean because I didn’t have the right tools. But at the time I thought it was good,” he says with a laugh.

Somewhere in Surrey, where Leyson grew up, there’s evidence of his handiwork in high school yearbooks.

Leyson later attended Vancouver Community College to learn barbering but he had to do the full meal hairdressing deal to get certified, after the barbering-specific program became defunct.

“I actually wanted to quit half way through just because I didn’t like the whole perming, colouring,” says Leyson.

Luckily, Silvana took Leyson under her wing at Lynn Valley Barbershop.

“She actually tried to get me to do women’s hair at first,” says Leyson, laughing. “But she helped me a lot. I used to spray water on my clients to the point where they were just drenched.”

Silvana says Leyson was a quick study with a positive attitude.

“Between us we all kind of mentored him and he’s great,” she adds.

Today Silvana and Leyson are partners in the Lynn Valley Barbershop and can’t help but look back with a laugh at where they have been.

Who can forget the fauxhawk, which has since flown away?  

“Thank God,” says Silvana. “It was just too much, 20 fauxhawks a day.”

Thanks David Beckham.

The new trend is hair tattooing. And while it’s not the Lynn Valley barbers’ forte – hair tattoos are an art form all on their own – Leyson will razor in a couple lines. Usually, it’s a local soccer team that will come in looking for matching hair tattoos.

These days barbering in general is enjoying a renaissance.

“I think people care more about the service now, the man behind the chair, the building of the relationship,” says Leyson.

Silvana agrees, standing underneath a shadow box on the wall housing a 100-year-old razor.

Customer Wesley Ridington,18, is getting a cut from his barber Emily.

Ridington stumbled upon the Lynn Valley Barbershop a year ago and has been faithfully returning.

“So I just came in and I loved the service, loved the people who were cutting my hair, and they always do a great job,” says Ridington.

The 1960s red and gold wallpaper has faded in favour of LCD TVs and signed Whitecaps and Canucks jerseys on the wall.

Silvana says it’s hard to say if her family’s shop will carry on for another 50 years. 

“I probably have another 10 to 15 years in me,” she says. “My kids aren’t interested in the trade but Gerardo is younger and who knows ... .”

One thing is for certain: on June 10-11 the Lynn Valley Barbershop will celebrate 50 years in the community.

There will be cake and kids’ face painting on Saturday, followed by Sunday’s free barbecue and charity cut-a-thon, with proceeds donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in honour of Mauro.

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