Nineteen years of haircuts and wisdom from Lou the barber

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

by Elliot Levy


Three weeks into my freshman year at Boston University, something very
scary happened — something that no amount of back-to-school
shopping could have prepared me for.

I needed a haircut.

That first haircut away from home can be a traumatic experience. Before
coming to BU, I'd been going to the same barber for 11 years. I wasn't
ready to let some stranger wield scissors close to my head. But with a
mullet creeping in, I had no choice but to find myself a barber in Boston.

But where would I go? Could I trust my locks to the barber school
dropouts at SuperCuts? Should I shell out $50 for a trim on Newbury
Street? And then, just a few steps outside the doors of Warren Towers, I
found my answer. I walked into Louie's Haircuts, and plopped down in
Lou Fenerlis' chair.

From the longtime customer to the BU freshman, everyone who comes
into Louie's Haircuts is greeted with a smile and "Hello, how are you?" as
they walk through the door.

Lou has been practicing his people skills for 19 years now, since buying
his first pair of clippers in November 1982. The son of Greek immigrants,
Lou grew up in the Central Square (that's "Squaeh," by the way) area of
Cambridge. After an unsuccessful first year at Boston State College, Lou's
father and uncle, both barbers, suggested he try his hand at the family
trade. He signed up for classes at the Massachusetts School of Barbering,
but it took some time getting used to his classmates.

"The majority of people that go to barber schools are freshly out of
prison," explains Lou with a grin. "The government would subsidize them
to go to school, and then as soon as they'd get the check they'd run with
the money."

Unlike the ex-cons, Lou finished school and began cutting hair at his
uncle's Custom Barber Shop in Harvard Square at the age of 21. There, he
was able to refine his skills as a barber and, more importantly, master the
art of making people happy — a skill that would keep his clients coming
back for many years.
 Continued...
"I got myself an education in Harvard Square," says Lou, as he sweeps up
the scraps of hair from the floor. "I learned a lot ... not just how to cut
hair, but also how to be a good person."

Lou visits his customers in the hospital when they get sick and swaps
stories and messages between his regulars. A visit to Lou's might even
boost your IQ. His haircuts have attracted such notables as Robert Reich,
John Kenneth Galbraith, Saul Bellow and Michael Dukakis.

Lou does not take appointments — customers are taken first come, first
served — except for former presidential candidate Dukakis, who once
had Secret Service agents clear the shop so he could come in for a quick
trim.

Saturday afternoons are standing room only, with all nine chairs in his
waiting area occupied and customers waiting by the door. It is a jovial
atmosphere. Children are given lollipops while parents and students
gossip with Lou and the other barbers about politics, love lives, and Lou's
favorite subject, hockey.

A diehard fan of the sport, Lou counts Chris Drury, Colorado Avalanche
center and former BU star, among his loyal clients. "He was here a couple
of times this summer. He's got his first Stanley Cup, so it's nice to know
Chris."

While Lou's love for the sport may be unwavering, his loyalty to local
college teams is not. Once an ardent fan (and barber) of the Harvard
Crimson, Lou changed his allegiance when he moved across the Charles
to his Commonwealth Avenue shop in 1993. Now that he's in Terrier
territory, he jokes, "Oh, hey, I gotta go where the money is. I'm a BU fan
all the way!"

In fact, Lou's love of the Terriers is so strong that he claims to have
contributed to their 1995 NCAA Championship title.

"I inspired these guys," he boasts. "I brought this picture over here of the
Harvard championship," referring to a photo of the 1989 Harvard
champions that still hangs on his wall. "The first year I was here, I got so
much grief about it from the BU players. I was like 'Listen, you guys. Win
one, I'll hang [a picture of the BU team] up.' There it is right there. They
won it the year later, and I'm the reason why!"

His inspirational hockey abilities aside, Lou says he's happy to continue
barbering until it becomes time to retire.

"It's almost [superstitiously knocking on his counter] recession proof," he
says. His hard work has earned him a happy life with his wife and three
children at their home in Winchester.

As for the possibility of future barbers in the Fenerlis family? "I hope not,"
he sighs.

It's the sigh of a man who has stood on his feet for 12 hours a day, five
days a week for the last 19 years. A man who's proud of what he does,
but who's worked hard to provide for his family. A man who, in a
business where many are content to just cut hair, has realized how far a
smile and a kind word can take you. With the many complexities and
uncertainties in our world today, it's nice to know that $14 can still buy
you a haircut and a conversation with Lou the Barber — as long as you
don't mind waiting in line.