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'I'm a destination': Santa Rosa barber, 82, brings old-school flair to business – Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Rick Vitali was so determined to get his barbering license, he hitchhiked to get to Los Angeles for the test, slept in a movie theater and offered a homeless man a bottle of wine if he would be his model.
After thumbing a ride from San Rafael to San Francisco and catching a bus going south, Vitali arrived in Los Angeles, bought a movie ticket and slept in a theater the night before his exam. The next day, as state board instructors watched him snip and the homeless man took a swig, Vitali cut the man’s hair and got his license.
That was more than 60 years ago, when Vitali was 18.
Today, the 82-year-old Santa Rosa man runs a tiny barbershop on Hopper Avenue called Vitali Barber Stylist.
Here, clients relive the days of a red, white and blue barber pole spinning by the front door while men read newspapers and puffed cigars while waiting for haircuts.
“I’m a destination,” Vitali said while cutting a man’s hair last month. “When I’m out walking the streets, I’m just some regular guy. When I’m in this shop, I’m someone. People come to me.”
It’s obvious Vitali isn’t like most barbers.
He cuts hair “free handedly” and doesn’t need hair clipper guards or an apron.
And instead of all-in-one tool like most modern barbers use, Vitali uses a feathering technique that texturizes hair with only scissors and a comb.
Vitali mostly sees barbering as a means to pay his bills, but he also considers it a form of art that’s stuck with him.
He can do every cut in and out of style since the 1940s. Whether a flat top, standard fades, a classic gentleman’s haircut, a pompadour or a mop top, Vitali can make it happen.
His favorite cut? The flat top, which he believes is the most sustainable.
“They don’t make barbers like him anymore,” said his daughter, Tina Vitali. “He’s grown with each decade. He’s grown with the changes.”
The San Francisco native had been a professional barber for a decade before he opened his first shop with his brother Frank Vitali in 1970.
They opened it on Barham Avenue in Santa Rosa and called it Vitali Brothers.
Its walls were covered in bright orange carpet. Bottles of lite beer were scattered around and cigarette smoke filled the air. Western movies played on a TV, Elvis Presley played on the radio and cigars hung from customer’s mouths while they got gentlemen’s haircuts.
Vitali had a diverse clientele and cut hair for people from all parts of the community.
He gave haircuts to the entire Oakland Raiders team when they trained behind El Rancho Tropicana Hotel in Santa Rosa in 1975 until 1984.
He even cut the hair of “mafia-looking” customers.
“You know, suits and hats,” Vitali said. “I miss when people used to dress to the nines to get their hair cut.”
His expertise appealed to his clients, and Vitali’s once-young customers still come to him now that they’re adults.
Santa Rosa resident Matt Percy, who’s gotten his haircuts from Vitali for nearly 40 years, said he once biked 3 miles for a $2 haircut when he was 10 years old.
“I stepped one foot into his shop, saw a line of men with newspapers and cigarettes in their hand, got scared and walked out,” Percy, 50, said with a laugh. “I won’t go anywhere else — this is my spot. When you get a haircut, it makes you feel good. You feel confident to talk to people and be out in the world again.”
Hanging on the walls at Vitali Barber Stylist are black-and-white framed photos that tell the story of the barber’s hair-cutting origins.
In one photo, it’s the summer of 1949 and Vitali is giving his brother a buzz cut on a rooftop in San Francisco. Next to it is a photo of Vitali and his brothers, now bald, smiling proudly next to each other.
As kids, he and his brothers pushed a fruit stand up and down the streets of San Francisco and raised money for hair clippers. Then they’d cut each other’s hair.
“It was the kind of thing you did when you were a kid — cut each other’s hair,” Vitali said with a laugh. “People in the neighborhood called us the Cue Ball Brothers.”
Vitali has kept his business of barbering running for decades, taking care of his family of four.
“I’m not sure how he did it, but my dad’s barbering kept food on the table and a roof over our heads,” his daughter said. “It’s amazing that he’s kept going all these years.”
In 1980, Frank and Rick moved to the shop clients see today on Hopper Avenue in northwest Santa Rosa.
Frank died in 2008. Vitali hired Tina as a new barber and brought her into the shop.
When the Tubbs fire destroyed thousands of homes in nearby Coffey Park in 2017, it also meant a loss of customers for Vitali, as lives were disrupted. He sought out ways to help his community, offering free haircuts to long-time customers after the Tubbs fire.
And although business has slowed recently, Vitali is doing his best to survive the global pandemic.
Having cut hair for his community for 50 years, he’s finally considering slowing down — working fewer days and hours per week. But until he officially retires, he’ll be snipping and cutting hair every week from the shop’s third chair.
“It’s been a fun time,” Vitali said. “It’s nice getting paid for this. But truthfully, I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at [email protected] @searchingformya on Twitter.
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