Joseph LaLima has had his hands in Kingston people’s heads since 1968. LaLima’s Barbershop is the oldest barbershop on Broadway, neatly tucked in at number 678 for 39 years. And still, $9 hair cuts for men.
While some hair-cutting places are just that, places, Kingston is blessed with some great barbershops that serve as community centers and male-bonding meccas. LaLima spends hours every day holding court in his shop with locals, discussing everything from scoreboards to the view out the window.
First thing LaLima will tell you? Broadway has changed. The corridor once bustled with shops and delis which reflected the prosperity of the IBM era and generations of tradespeople and working class. Alongside his barbershop, LaLima also owned and operated a clothing store called Rustic Ranch at which he sold Western wear and work clothes, such as canvas pants and flannel shirts, catering to workers from Central Hudson and the phone company. LaLima said that in Broadway’s heyday, family restaurants, diners, bakeries and delis were interspersed between a paint store, newsstands, cigar store, beauty shop, and more. Everyone knew everyone, he said.
LaLima grew up on Greenkill Avenue with four siblings, and graduated Kingston High school in 1963 — which may or may not have been when he was supposed to, he laughs. He bought a two-story children’s bicycle shop in 1974 for $12,000. LaLima hunts and fishes and enjoys his Harley Heritage Softtail Classic, which he has ridden across the country and back three times.
LaLima looks out his window all day, solving the problems of Midtown. Confronted by the notorious Sunoco station on Broadway and Henry, LaLima said he watches more drug sales every day than a CVS cashier. First things first, says LaLima: Get rid of the hookers.
“They chase my customers and business away,” said LaLima. “They flag people down. If they weren’t here businesses would be here — and not their kind of business either. I want to see people walking down the street, families.”
LaLima said he lives for the day to see a local market set up shop, or a sandwich shop. He said the multi-agency Operation Clean Sweep last spring, resulting in more than 100 arrests, made “a helluva difference,” but still insists the prostitutes are equally as ruinous to the area as well.
“I have a longtime customer who said his wife won’t take the boys here because she doesn’t want their boys to see prostitutes,” he said. “I also don’t want hookers accosting customers, soliciting customers.” LaLima’s solution is to arrest their patrons and flash their name in the paper and stop letting criminals off the hook, he adds. LaLima said it’s always the same prostitutes, and even knows their names.
Longtime customer and fellow upper Broadway dweller Vinnie Costello concurred. “If they got teeth, they’re new. No teeth … they been out there.” LaLima said he sees one in particular get dropped off at the Sunoco station every day by her mother. The same one, he said, who has harassed his tenants by banging on doors and asking for money in the middle of the night.
LaLima said IBM pulling up the tent pegs was certainly problematic for the corridor, but also blames the mall for stealing away businesses with the promise of parking and indoor strolling. His personal solution to building the community back up is to foster small businesses by offering low rent and incentives.
In the short hour of speaking with LaLima and Costello, two obvious drug deals went down at the Sunoco station, and an apparent prostitute marched back and forth by LaLima’s shop a dozen times, eyes wide open and angrily muttering to herself.
LaLima said his chair has more information traveling through it than the Internet. “This place is where you go for some good information,” he said. “You know who’s doing what, who’s doing who. Most of the time, it’s true.” Don’t Google it, just get a buzz cut.
Politicians, construction workers, lawyers, doctors, laborers, computer techs and police walk in and out all day. “Men don’t complain very much,” he said. “Everyone wants the same thing; to be comfortable, safe. No B.S.” LaLima said no two heads are the same. “Each person is different, with a different style of hair,” he said. “There’s no two people alike.”
He said he has had some of the same customers since 1963, and they return for the camaraderie, bringing their friends, brothers, sons and grandsons. “I don’t care if you’re a judge or a racecar driver,” he said. “Everyone gets respect here. Any hands-on business is to treat customers like they are the boss, and very special, and like they are important. They are important.”
Costello and LaLima reminisced about Costello’s prizefighting brother, Billy Costello, who started training in LaLima’s back yard. “The only thing I can box is oranges,” said LaLima, who also helped out with the Police Athletic League’s gym.
LaLima’s shop is clean and tidy, and largely resembles its former 1970s interior with the familiar comforts of dark wood paneling, gold-framed photos of celebrities and notables, “Men’s Hair Cuts $9” sign, and a stack of New York Giants yearbooks for sale. Lights on at 5:30 a.m. sharp, and lights off at 4 p.m.
One hand-written sign made is 1974 reads: “I made a deal with the bank. They won’t give hair cuts and I won’t lend money.”