Ray (Scott) Santinello was five years old when he got his first haircut. It took place on the third floor of his family’s home in Springfield, and the barber was a young friend of the family. It was the 1950s and the barber, Benito Mancinone, had recently immigrated to the city from Molise, a small town located on a mountain in Italy.
Mr. Santinello is 61 now and Benny the Barber, long a mainstay of Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs, is still cutting his hair.
“He’s my barber. I just don’t change,” Mr. Santinello said on a recent Tuesday morning. “You get used to going to one person.”
Though he no longer receives house calls from Benny, the trip to the barbershop from Mr. Santinello’s summer house on Ocean Park is just a short walk away.
Mr. Santinello isn’t Benny’s only devoted customer. Far from it. Many of his clients have been frequenting his shop for years, because they know they’ll get what they want — a quick, precise cut and a friendly conversation with the barber.
Even when crowded, 10 men deep on some days, no one leaves. They sit, read the Boston Herald or Sports Illustrated and wait their turn in the light teal, cushioned armchairs — castoffs of an airport renovation. Benny does not accept appointments and he treats every customer the same, from the Secret Service to the local guys who tip in oysters and clams.
“I don’t give names,” he insists when this reporter asks whose hair he has cut. “I had some big wheels, some politicians, but it don’t mean nothing to me. It’s just another head. I treat them like I treat this guy, no different.”
He cuts exclusively male hair, long and short, the same way he’s been cutting it for 65 years. He leaves the styling to the ladies in the back of his shop — the lettering on the window does advertise it as a unisex shop. In front, it’s man’s territory, where two vintage Rat Pack posters cover the wall space and Sinatra serenades over the sound system. “Is anybody better?” Benny asks rhetorically.
At $16 for a wet cut, Benny may be the cheapest cut in town, but he won’t claim he’s the best.
“You try and do the best you can,” he said. “One thing about me which I learned from my boss: ‘you’re going to be a good one, you’re not going to be the best, but you try your best and you will be a good one.’ That’s what I did in life.”
He passes this wisdom along to his successor, Tracy Briscoe, who recently bought the business with her brother Jason Gruner of Chappaquiddick. She vows to keep the name and to decorate the shop with all of Benny’s decor. “I adore the man,” she said.
In a box below the cash register, Benny keeps a typewritten letter signed by a Mr. and Mrs. Peters of Oak Bluffs. The letter, dated April 8, 1991, invited barbers to apply for a job on Martha’s Vineyard at the Cottage City Barbershop on Circuit avenue. “This is in no way a hoax of any kind,” the letter insisted. Benny says 1,000 barbers all over Massachusetts received this letter, but he was the first to respond.
The letter arrived at a fortuitous time for Benny who that week had been forced to close down his restaurant and health club facility in Springfield. He had gone broke and was looking for another way to support his wife and one-year old daughter. “I was ashamed to be around my people there,” he says. “And it hurt . . . I was ashamed of myself and of what happened to me.”
Benny closed the restaurant on Friday, as he tells it, and Saturday morning the mail arrived.
“I called at 10 o’clock in the morning, Saturday, and made the arrangements to come there Sunday,” he recalls. “And I never turned back.”
“It happened all just like that, no plan . . . I didn’t even know what Martha’s Vineyard was, I didn’t know nothing.”
Within a year the business was his and he changed the name to Benito’s Hair Styling.
“Cottage City made me think of cottage cheese,” he explained.
Benny prefers to leave town just the way he came. Unannounced. He refuses to disclose which day will be his last, though he says it will be sometime during the month of July. He doesn’t like to say goodbye, he says. “I am very sentimental, very touchy, it hurts me and I cry easily. This way, it’s just ‘ciao.’”
The circumstances are much different than when he left Springfield more than 20 years ago. Here, he is a proud representative of a very successful Island business. He’s Benny the Barber, the guy who will sit you down in his swivel chair, work his magic and lighten your load — physically and mentally. He says though many of his clients vent to him about their life problems, he quickly forgets what he’s been told.
“I have a bad memory,” he says. “I cut this guy’s hair 20 years, his name? I don’t know.” But in the moment, he listens and tries to help them feel better.
“I try to get them away from their sad story they are talking about,” he says. “I am good to make a change, to put a smile on their face. When a sad thing comes, that’s what I am good at.”
Often he receives gifts from his customers, such as Glenlivit Scotch, German chocolates and Cuban cigars. A patron who visited the barbershop late one Friday afternoon promised a cap from the Daytona Speedway. “Sometimes the refrigerator gets pretty full,” of seafood, said Ms. Briscoe, who has worked with Benny since 2000.
He’s never late opening his shop at 8:30 a.m. because he feels a responsibility to his clients. “Because as much as I don’t need it, I appreciate people come out of their way to come see me,” he says. After 65 years in the hair business, Benny is retiring and moving to Clinton, Conn., where he can be within driving distance of his four adult daughters. “I do love Martha’s Vineyard, I’m going to miss it, but my family comes first.”