Sections

Island author Cynthia Riggs (pictured here) dubbed Phil Combra the “Hairdresser to the Stars.”

Ray Ewing

8.24.22

Twenty-Five Bucks a Head

After sixty-two years of cutting hair, Phil Combra of Bert’s Barber Shop looks back at his handiwork.

Phil Combra, like all good barbers, is an excellent listener, encouraging conversation. There is rhythm as well as repetition to our conversation.

Hail the barber, master of trim and transformation, gab and gossip. Growing up in New York, I went to Frank Spadola, who still used a leather strop, straight razor, and hot lather, played opera (loudly) on his barbershop radio, and handed out free copies of his book of love poems dedicated to God, America, and Italy. 

On the Vineyard, I get to choose from a diverse group of barbers with distinctive barbershop décors. At Benito’s in Oak Bluffs, three women (Nicole Downing, Melissa Paxita, and owner Tracy Briscoe) cut hair surrounded by walls covered with 1950s pinup-posters and thousands of baseball cards. In Edgartown, at Minas (named for Brazil’s fourth largest state), signs in Portuguese welcome the Vineyard’s large Brazilian population. 

Vineyard Haven, the Island’s hair cutting capital, offers: Blair’s, where Blair Hill, a Wampanoag, cuts children’s hair in a chair that looks like a red race car; the Hair Studio, where Peter Charpentier, who comes from a family of barbers, works in front of large, stylish mirrors that date from as early as the 1930s; King’s, which features a pool table, a foosball game table, three large-screen TVs, and a massage chair;
and Bert’s, the most Vineyard-y of the barbershops.

Usually, I go to Bert’s, owned by Phil Combra, who turned eighty on December 22 (alas, a birthday three days before Christmas meant as a boy he lost out on birthday presents). Combra and Brad, his barber brother, bought the barbershop in the 1970s from Humberto “Bert” J. Colaneri, who operated his Main Street shop for thirty-four years (the shop moved to its current location at the Tisbury Marketplace in 1991). Both sides of Combra’s family emigrated from Portugal around the turn of the twentieth century, first locating in New Bedford, a fishing center, before moving to the Vineyard.

Combra graduated with the first class of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in June 1960. By December, he was taking lessons at a Boston barber school. The school charged its customers ten cents during the week. Barbershops charged twenty-five cents. Now, more than sixty years later, Combra charges twenty-five dollars, less than most Island barbershops.

I love the feel of his shop: Tootsie Pops for kids, Esquire, Golf, and other magazines for adults, a 1900s crank-operated Victor Talking Machine for disc devotees. The walls display Vineyard paintings by Marston Clough and Allen Whiting. Combra recalls playing fast-pitch softball with Whiting on the Rare Ducks. (Whiting insists he played for the Uplanders, Combra for the Rare Ducks: “We both ended up playing for the Nine Wonders, Phil in left field and myself at third. We won two to three championships over ten years. Phil was a good-humored agitator.”) 

Combra, like all good barbers, is an excellent listener, encouraging conversation. There is rhythm as well as repetition to our conversation. As always, I ask about Brad, his seventy-four-year-old brother, who last year had to quit his Oak Bluffs barbershop – he hopes only temporarily – after thirty-four years because of cataracts. And, as always, Combra asks me about my five grandchildren.

This time we go beyond the regular questions. I ask about celebrity customers (Cynthia Riggs, a customer, inscribed a copy of her Vineyard guidebook to Combra: “Hairdresser to the Stars”). He recalls cutting actress Mia Farrow’s hair short during her Sinatra years. I ask about the biggest tip he has ever received. He says a longtime customer, kept at home by Covid, gave him a tip in the hundreds, explaining it was for all the haircuts he was prevented from getting during the height of the pandemic.

I love Combra’s dry wit. When I lament the few remaining strands atop my head, he says, “We get a finder’s fee.” His wit, his decision to stop offering shaves during the Covid crisis, and the low cost of a shave remind me of a barber joke:

Customer: How much for a haircut?
Barber: Twenty-five dollars.
Customer: How much for a shave?
Barber: Ten dollars.
Customer: Right, shave my head.

The biggest threat to Combra’s business occurred in the 1960s and ’70s when men started letting their hair grow long (even he wore his hair longer). In a decade, 28 percent of U.S. barbershops closed.

Recently, Combra went from being a first-come, first-served barber to having customers only by appointment. His shoulders bother him, so he only barbers half a day, usually four to five customers daily, four-and-a-half days a week. In his sixty-second year of barbering, he has taken his first two-week vacation – to visit Ireland, home to his wife Gerda’s family. Previously, one week was the most he had taken.

I ask how many heads of hair he has cut over his six decades as a barber. Before he turned to appointment only, he estimates he haircut ten to twelve customers a day. Brad, his barber brother, thinks that estimate is low. Barbers take approximately twenty minutes a customer, Brad says. 

I estimate Combra has cut 300,000 heads of hair. He plans to keep cutting, and, if Brad can resume barbering, they could soon pass a combined half-million haircuts and one hundred years of barbering. I hope they’ll keep cutting so that I, however hairless, may be part of their barbering record.