Frank’s – the back story

by Anne Hart

At first it was all about the tips – making sure the wooden handle on the shoeshine brush didn’t hit an ankle, and that not a speck of shoe polish stained a customer’s sock. Either one of those mishaps meant no tip for the shoeshine boy.

Then it was all about the poker games in the back room of the barbershop in an Italian neighborhood in New Jersey, just north of New York City, and the trips around the corner to George’s Diner to get snacks for the card sharks. Big tips awaited the ten-year-old shoe shine boy on his return.

To young Frank Gambuzza, it was an exciting world, one filled with men in expensive hats and elegant cashmere overcoats who appreciated a hot lather shave, a good haircut and a perfect shoe shine. The “wise men” they were called in the neighborhood.

Frank listened, he watched, he paid attention, he learned fast. And his hard work meant he always had plenty of cash in his pockets.

“He was a pushy little kid,” Frank’s mentor, Joe Vito Lupo recalls. “But pushy in a good way. He always wanted to learn more.”

Lupo owned the barbershop where the shoe shine boy got his start. “He would watch everything I did and ask lots of questions. Before long he wanted to cut hair, so I trained him. I didn’t want him to ruin my customers, so I let him bring his friends in to experiment on. He learned quick.”

It wasn’t easy. At age 13, Frank spent countless hours standing in a doorway in the shop, running a pair of scissors up and down the door jam, one-handed, learning how to use his thumb to manipulate the scissors, a critical skill in cutting hair.

And he learned discipline. No wild Friday nights for this teenager. Joe Lupo’s people had to be at work at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. One minute late and you were sent on your way.

The barbershop was right across the street from Frank’s high school, and soon he was cutting his teachers’ hair. And if he didn’t show up for a class, they knew where to find him.

“He had genuine enthusiasm for cutting hair, and when I saw how good he was, I kept moving him along. And then he got interested in cutting women’s hair. He was even better at that. Before long, I started training him for competitions, and he started winning them.”

In those days, New Jersey didn’t have barber schools. Instead, those aspiring to the trade apprenticed with a shop owner for 18 months, and were certified after passing a test.

Joe Vito Lupo did a good job with young Frank Gambuzza. When Frank was 16 years old, he placed third in the state competition, coming in behind two Italians who had already won world championships.

When officials learned that young Frank wasn’t certified yet, they tried to take back his trophy. Lupo told them that if they came to his shop to take back the trophy “you better not come alone. The kid won it fair and square.”

That was the end of that, and the beginning of a career that saw the young barber take 22 national championships during the 11 years he spent with Joe.

“Joe gave me the confidence to do all that,” Frank says today. “It was all about discipline and excellence, and it still is. It’s an art form we have brought back with Frank’s Barber Shop. This is an old-fashioned barber shop…but better.”

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