Sitting down with Carl McManus

Phil’s Hairstyles on Wall Street is the oldest barbershop in New Haven, in continuous operation since 1924. It sports its original enameled barber chairs, copies of Townhall Magazine (“Fresh. Intelligent. Conservative.”), and a slew of famous customers. The Herald sat down with Carl McManus, who has cut hair at Phil’s for 47 years, to talk about barbering, the Red Sox, and hippies.

YH: So you’ve been here for 45 years?
CM: Yes. Well, actually I got here in early ’65.

YH: And you had been working in New Haven before that?
CM: I was working at another Phil’s. There was three Phil’s. I worked there about six months, on lower York, where the Walgreens is now. There was a Phil’s there. There was five barbers over here at this Phil’s, and one of them left, so the owner at the time, Rocky, summoned me over here to this place. That was in, I’d have to say, ‘65.

YH: And you’ve been here ever since?
CM: Yeah. And I remember Phil, the former owner, had just sold the shop to Rocky. And he came in the door and says, “Rocky, you got a new barber!” And Rocky says, “Yeah, he’s from Boston, Mass., he’s Irish”—which I am, you know. “Irish?” he says. “I’ve never met a good Irish barber yet.” ’Cause he’s Italian, you know, and barbering is an Italian trade, really.

YH: So you’re from Boston. How did you wind up here in New Haven?
CM: My dad was a salesman and got transferred. I was working in a barbershop in Boston at the time. I was out of school maybe about six months. I wasn’t really settled, you know what I mean? And my mother had a setback, so my brother summoned me to go down to New Haven to be nearby, you know? Which I did.

YH: How did you get into cutting hair?
CM: It’s funny. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do yet, you know? Ever heard of the Boston Marathon? I grew up in the town of Hopkinton, where they start the Boston Marathon. That’s my hometown. And I worked in a grocery store, stocking shelves, bagging groceries, you know. And the butcher, he used to like to play the horses. And the barber was the bookmaker. So every Saturday he would send me over a list of horses that he wanted, to give to the barber. The barber was busy that day. I sat and waited for him, and I was watching him work, and I took an interest in it, conversing with the public and all, which I like to do. So I looked into it, and I went to the Massachusetts School of Barbering, it was called.

YH: I’ve never really understood what happens when someone cuts my hair. Can you explain it to me? How do you know what to do?
CM: Well, this is what they teach you in barbering school. Normally you start behind the neck on the right side of the ear, but it depends. It doesn’t really matter, it’s all going to come out the same, no matter where you start.

YH: Has business stayed steady over the years, at least after the late ’60s?
CM: Yeah, it’s pretty steady now. Pretty good. I’d say the student trade is probably about 25 percent, maybe 30. But for the most part it’s city trade—lawyers, judges, and the Yale faculty, employees. When I started, they had ROTC here, and we were always busy. They were on the floor, the students, because the waiting chairs had filled up. And then the late ’60s, with the long-haired hippies, hurt a lot of businesses. If it wasn’t for the phone company down the street here—the businessmen, they’d get their hair cut every three weeks—Rocky could’ve put the key in the door. Because the students didn’t get haircuts. So it went from five barbers down to two—just the boss Rocky and I. It was really tough. And then co-ed came on the scene in ’69, and that cut into our business. But in any event the Rev. Sloane Coffin—he was the Yale chaplain at the time—came in here, I think it was in ’71, and said, “Sharpen your shears: I just came back from England, and short hair is back.” But it didn’t come right away. It took another couple of years before it came to the States.

YH: Have you given haircuts to any interesting people?
CM: I’ve had the distinction of giving haircuts to three Nobel Prize winners—one in economics, one in chemistry, and one in biology.

YH: That’s not something most barbers can say!
CM: I consider it an honor, really. One of them passed away—the economics professor, James Tobin. Very nice guy. A lot of professors come here for haircuts. Rick Levin comes in here for haircuts, and Salovey—I gave him a haircut about two weeks ago. I’ve had quite a few actors come in here. Not so much now, but 20 years ago. Richard Dreyfus came in for a haircut, and Hal Holbrooke, John Lithgow. And my favorite of all time, Eli Wallach. You know who he is? You ever watch The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? He was a Mexican called Blondie, remember that character? And then he strung him up and left him hanging there? That was him. Oh, he was terrific. What a personality. I really enjoyed him. But Richard Dreyfus was a stuffed shirt. He wouldn’t give you his autograph. He said, “I don’t give autographs.”

YH: What was Rocky like as a person?
CM: Rocky? Well, Rocky was a Yankee fan. And being from Boston I’m a Red Sox fan. So there was quite a rivalry between the two of us. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, that was the talk of this barbershop. Rocky had to go home. It was quite funny. We had an attorney here, who was getting a haircut, a big defense lawyer. I was telling him that if the Red Sox lose at the end of the series, I’m gonna jump off the Q-Bridge. So Rocky shot back and says, “Well, I’m gonna drive you there.” I think it’s probably half Red Sox, half Yankee fans who come in here.

YH: How many people’s hair do you think you’ve cut over the years?
CM: We were talking about that. 200,000, probably.

YH: Of all those haircuts, what’s the weirdest haircut you’ve ever had to give?
CM: A Mohawk.

—This interview was condensed by the author.

Leave a Reply