Trio keep barber tradition alive in Uniontown
It's 7:45 a.m., and there's a coffee and doughnut party in full swing on the porch of a Victorian-era house in Uniontown.
Men and boys dawdle on chairs and benches, perch on stairs and huddle together on the sidewalk, gossiping.
There's an air of anticipation as 8 o'clock approaches. A key rattles in a lock. The heavy oak-and-glass door swings open, and the fellas file inside. Another Saturday is under way at The Esquire Barber Shop, where thousands of heads have been shorn by licensed barbers — all of them women.
When state inspector Paul McComb visited the shop recently, he couldn't believe his eyes, according to Denise Del Grecco of Uniontown, who has been with The Esquire for 34 years.
“He expected to see three men and saw us instead,” she noted. “He said it was unheard of, especially since licensed barbering is considered a dying art.”
The “us” to whom Del Grecco referred includes Katie Sepkovic and Rita Hudock. Both live in Connellsville and together have 70 years of experience: Sepkovic with 37, Hudock with 33. The shop recently welcomed back Michelle O'Brochta. She clipped hair with The Esquire for more than a decade and moved away before returning home to Uniontown.
“We're a family-friendly place,” said Hudock. “Kids love to come here. They know where the toys are and where the candy is.”
Wee ones clamor for a “ride” in the shop's pint-sized barber chair, a 75-year-old antique designed to look like a merry-go-round horse.
The Esquire has been in business so long that it's multigenerational.
“I cut one guy's hair for 30 years, then his son's – and now his grandson's,” Del Grecco pointed out.
“We clipper them all, from babies to men in their 90s,” Sepkovic added.
“If a customer is in the hospital or a nursing home, we'll pay him a visit,” Hudock chimed in.
They even take care of customers after they pass away, if the family requests it.
The Esquire's traditional barbershop atmosphere is enthusiastically embraced by their clientele, who come from near and far.
It wasn't always that way, however.
Nepa had nerve
It took the chutzpah of Fairchance-area native Joyce Nepa to establish the woman-owned business in 1971. Women barbers were unheard of back then.
Nepa was inspired to become a barber by the shaggy-haired boys she grew up with in York Run, a village in rural Georges Township. Determined to make her way in the male profession, she entered Pittsburgh Barber School in 1964 — the only woman in her class.
After receiving her license, Nepa worked with Pittsburgh-area barbers only to face ridicule.
“She was fired three times because she was a woman,” Del Grecco said.
Disgusted, Nepa packed up her clippers and shears and trekked home, where she opened The Esquire at Fayette Plaza, along Route 51 near Uniontown.
Business was slow at first. People would stand by the window, ogling her as an oddity.
Slowly but surely, local men figured out that Nepa knew what she was doing. Soon, she hired a bevy of female barbers — and they were off to the races.
Current location: 1990
By 1990, the business had expanded so much that Nepa purchased a large, circa-1900 house at 51 N. Mt. Vernon Ave. in Uniontown. She had it extensively remodeled, accentuating the scrolls and rickrack on its exterior and the golden oak woodwork inside.
In the front yard is a fine, old oak tree under which customers gather, especially on Saturdays, when the shop reverts to the roots of barberhood: the walk-in and wait.
“Every other workday, we take appointments and walk-ins, but on Saturdays we do it the old-fashioned way,” Del Grecco said.
It's a clipper extravaganza every weekend, Hudock added: “When we come to work in the morning, they're waiting for us outside. It's wild and crazy!”
Once the shop is open, customers wait their turn in the sun room, which has ample space plus television and toys for the kids.
The barbering trio said they never considered doing women's hair. Men aren't as fussy, they pointed out. Their hair is usually easier — and faster — to cut. Best of all, they tend to come in more often. “Especially those who like a ‘high-and-tight' cut,” Sepkovic said. “I've got customers who get a cut every week or every other week.”
A trendy business
They've got traditional, tapered cuts and flattops down to a science but have rolled with many trendy cuts during the past four decades, from bowl cuts to the beleaguered mullets and the flippy-do Bieber's, a current shaggy style that Del Grecco said is on its way out, “Thank God!”
True multi-taskers, the three clippered while chatting about The Esquire's history — and those in the chairs added some comments of their own.
“When I was a kid, my stepfather brought me here to get my hair cut,” said Chris Mikolowsky, a teacher at Laurel Highlands High School. “I've been coming back ever since.”
Mike Sanders and his son, Mike Jr., echoed that sentiment.
“I've known Denise forever,” the elder Sanders said. “Coming to The Esquire just became a tradition.”
The Sanders live in McClellandtown but don't mind the commute to Uniontown when it's haircut time. Mike Jr., a freshman at Albert Gallatin High School, favors a short cut.
“About half the kids at school are wearing their hair short these days,” he said.
‘The shave' returns
Always hoping to lure more customers, The Esquire plans to revive an old custom: the shave. They're having several vintage barber chairs restored; a circa-1920s Hercules is already operational. Although the shave is traditional, the shaving equipment has been modernized — no straight razors.
“We're required to use only disposable blades, for health reasons,” Hudock explained.
Business is so good that The Esquire is seeking additional barbers — women or men.
“We'll take anyone with a good work ethic and at least five years' experience,” Del Grecco said.
Nepa retired about 10 years ago, and Del Grecco, Sepkovic and Hudock purchased the business.
“We walked into a gold mine, thanks to Joyce,” said Del Grecco. “She's the one who got The Esquire up and running. We owe her a lot.”
It hasn't hurt that Del Grecco, Sepkovic and Hudock have stuck together all these years.
“We've actually gotten along without fighting,” Sepkovic laughed.
“And we're women,” Hudock added. “Can you believe it?”
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.