Forty-four years of cutting hair has provided Gus Galgay with a lot of memories. He’s cut the hair of thousands of people, from children to seniors to politicians to singers and soldiers.
But when Galgay’s memory started to slip last year, he knew something was wrong.
“In the shop I was getting a little bit forgetful and I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
“I was really getting annoyed with myself, like everybody would in this situation.”
And then a regular customer — someone who’d seen Galgay’s three children grow up in and around his barber shop, which for the last 36 years has been in the basement of Galgay’s house on Hamilton Avenue — asked where his son Jonathan was working these days.
“I said I didn’t know. I had to call out to Frances, my wife,” said Galgay, chuckling.
That was the last day — Dec. 15 — that Gus’ Barber Shop was open. Galgay — who turned 62 Friday — went to the doctor the next day, and was diagnosed with an aggressive, rare form of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiform, for which he’s undergoing treatment, including emergency surgery Dec. 23.
A small sign in the window of the shop alerts customers that the shop is closed indefinitely, but the news of Galgay’s illness has been slow to get around, so the regulars still come, knocking on the door, looking for Galgay to trim their locks, just as he has for more than four decades.
Jonathan Galgay, Gus’s son — Gus and Frances also have two daughters, Danielle and Carla — remembers lines of cars parked up and down the street in the morning, retired men behind the steering wheels, waiting for the shop to open, for them a meeting place and a source of information.
“We used to get the news that was coming on the television at 6 o’clock here in the barber shop,” said Frances Galgay.
“Everybody came in with all the news, all day long.”
Galgay said he loved what he did, thanks to the steady stream of customers.
“They were good people, all of them,” said Galgay. “I never said to myself, ‘Oh, not him.’”
And fiercely loyal, too, willing to brave the harshest of weather for a haircut.
“The other day when we had the storm, we had — is he 91? or 92? — dropped by with a cane and everything, in that snowstorm, driving a car,” said Frances.
That same man, said Jonathan Galgay, happened to come by the shop the last day it was open with a Christmas gift for Gus — a picture of four generations of his family who had their hair cut at Gus’s Barber Shop.
But it wasn’t just the oldtimers who Galgay will remember, but the first-timers as well — all the children who had their first haircuts in his shop — some terrified at first.
“Who wouldn’t be upset at first? But after a little while, b’y, they’d be lovely. Sweet,” said Galgay, who’d give children a lollipop and a certificate marking their first haircut.
It’s not just his sudden retirement and shop closure that Galgay regrets, but the knowledge that barber shops themselves are endangered.
“I’d say there’s no more than 10 or 12 at the most. And when they’re finished, like myself, they’re gone,” he said. “There’s nobody doing barbering, I don’t think. There’s men at it for years and years, the men at it are 55, 58 years, and their children never got involved.”
Galgay tried to get his son to follow him into the business to no avail — he’s an analyst with the provincial Department of Justice.
He laments the disappearance of the old-fashioned nature of barber shops. Galgay didn’t take credit card or even debit cards — but he says he was never stiffed by a new customer caught without cash.
For longtime customers, Galgay made the occasional hospital visit for a trim, and there were even a couple of patrons — loyal to the very end — whose last wishes included a request for Galgay to cut their hair for the casket viewing.
Lieutenant-governors, musicians, doctors — for 44 years they came to Gus Galgay for a haircut, five days a week. He says that while there were many days over the years that he felt like closing the shop and enjoying the sunshine — but he kept on.
“When you look back at stuff, you’re talking 35, 40, 40-odd years. That’s a lot of loyalty,” he said. “That’s your bread and butter. If people don’t come to the door, you’re not getting paid.”
He refuses to let his illness bother him, adhering to a philosophy of taking every day as it comes.
And he has a message for the generation upon generation of the customers who visited his shop over the past four-plus decades.
“I want to thank them for coming in. Really, they were excellent, excellent people who came into the shop,” he said.