One day in 1997, Tom Mazzariello Jr. chatted up what he thought was a group of random tourists admiring the facade of his barber shop.
Star Barber Shop had green Vermont marble both on its exterior and counters, and Mazzariello talked up the product. It was only later, according to news accounts from the time, that he learned he had been talking to board members from British Gas and had unwittingly helped convince them to spend $500,000 on Vermont marble for their new corporate headquarters.
Mazzariello, who died earlier this month at the age of 82, was a downtown fixture for more than half a century. His father opened Star Barber Shop in 1935. Mazzariello officially took it over from his father in 1968, and remained a frequent presence there after his own son officially took over in 1999.
Mazzariello’s shop was a hot spot, and on many occasions reporters went there to poll his customers when they wanted to know what ordinary Rutlanders thought about an issue of the day.
“People used to say he should run for office, run for mayor,” said Bill Mazzariello, the son who runs the shop today. “He said, ‘I’ll only do it if I can have my office right here in the shop.’”
As he cut hair Saturday, Bill Mazzariello described his father growing up in the barber shop.
“My father was about 13 when he came down here and started shining shoes on Saturdays,” he said. “Guys from Lincoln Iron Works and Howe Scale would come in and get haircuts and they’d want their shoes shined.”
Many of those workers would cash their paychecks at the shop. Bill Mazzariello said most of them made about $20 a week, and that his father would clear about $20 on a typical Saturday.
Despite a brief stint at Pratico’s Flower Shop, Bill Mazzariello said there was never really any question of his father working anywhere else, and Thomas Mazzariello started full-time at the shop right after graduating high school.
“He just loved talking to people,” Bill Mazzariello said. “Very engaging.”
Bill Mazzariello said his father modeled the way he strives to do business.
“Always being gracious to customers, talking about their families — that’s what always meant the most to me,” he said.
Bill Mazzariello paused to offer the young boy whose hair he had just cut a choice between a lollipop and a jelly doughnut.
Tom Mazzariello was known for giving numerous local children their first haircuts, and he gave them a diploma when the ordeal was over. He was often called in when local principals sacrificed their facial hair in bets with students. Then-mayor Christopher Louras and Steve Costello went there for the Mohawks they pledged to wear after the Gift of Life Marathon blood drive broke a record, and to shave off the beards they grew a couple years later after the fundraiser broke another.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer person,” said Costello, a regular customer. “In literally hundreds of encounters with him, I never heard him say a negative word about anyone. ... He connected with everybody.”
Work never crowded out family life. Tom Mazzariello began his mornings by visiting each of his adult children and having coffee with his mother before going to the shop, Bill Mazzariello said.
When he retired in 1999, Tom Mazzariello said he wanted to spend more time on his other passion — oil painting. Several of his paintings adorn the wall of the shop. Bill Mazzariello recalled his father telling his grandfather that he had just sold his first painting, and the elder Mazzariello asking if the buyer was drunk. Bill Mazzariello said his father also liked to pass his spare time taking wooden dowels designed for use as shovel handles and carving them into Santa Claus figurines.
“He had a whole army of them like wooden soldiers in his garage,” Bill Mazzariello said. “He would give them to people, and I still have people tell me they come out at Christmas time.”
To get outdoors, he’d go mushroom picking.
“We would cook them up,” Bill Mazzariello said. “He couldn’t cook. He was domestically challenged. He’d say he’d even screw up the cornflakes.”
Vacations were frequently in Maine, where he would paint lighthouses. Occasionally he would drive in the other direction and catch a Red Sox game in Boston — a change of allegiance from his childhood.
“Growing up, he was a Yankees fan,” Bill Mazzariello said. “We had to be Yankees fans because we were Italian.”
Bill said he got his own start in the business at his father’s suggestion when he was looking for a job. He said his father told him if he didn’t like it, he could always quit.
“That was 28 years ago,” Bill Mazzariello said. “He was always supportive, no matter what.”
Now, Bill Mazzariello said his own son is attending barber school and expecting to start work at the shop later this year.
“He is just so excited,” he said.