Mr. James Hairstylist closing after 80 years
Staff gives up waiting for miracle to save business
SCHENECTADY Mark Scolamiero is looking for a miracle.
Mr. James Hairstylist, the business his grandfather and father passed down to him, is closing Saturday.
After eight decades, the downtown business simply doesn’t get enough customers to stay afloat. But Scolamiero and the two employees he grew up with are hoping for a last-minute reprieve.
“I have an idea!” he said Thursday morning, as one customer sat in a salon built for dozens. “What if you and I, all three of us, go and find a place? Not a rent-a-booth, but some little place?”
Nina Della Rocco Gazzillo jumped on it. Yes, she said, but where? And how soon could he find a new location?
“These people, they don’t want to wait,” she said. “They’ve been loyal all these years.”
A minute later, he suggested, only half in jest, “Marion, we could take a chair and one sink and set up in your basement.”
Marion Sorbello, who has worked at Mr. James for 62 years, shook her head. There were the stairs to consider, she said, not to mention the problems of getting permission to run a business in a residential home.
“I don’t want to let it go,” he said miserably, sitting in one of the many empty chairs in his salon.
He’s offered to make house calls for his customers, and several have already taken him up on it. But he’s also swallowed his pride and applied to cut hair anywhere — even at Wal-Mart.
“I’ve gone through my life savings,” he said. “I wanted to work here since I was kid. It’s in our blood, I guess. I love it, love it, love it. The people and my co-workers. And I feel like I’m letting everybody down. But I don’t know what else to do.”
Mr. James was once a bustling salon. On the ground floor there are a dozen hairdresser booths, seven chairs with sinks and enough dryers to curl a dozen women’s hair at once.
There’s even more space in the basement and the second floor.
But for decades, the company hasn’t had enough business to even fill the ground floor. When Scolamiero took over 32 years ago, it had retreated to the dozen booths on the ground floor.
Now, there’s just three hairdressers left, and rarely are they all busy at once.
“All these chairs, at one time, were full,” he said as he studied his shop.
Gazzillo added, “You never sat down. It was a booming business.”
But then General Electric laid off many of its employees, who used to come “by the busload” to get their hair cut during their lunch break.
Others businesses downtown closed, and suddenly Mr. James was left alone in a sea of vacant buildings.
The customers got older and older, and few new customers came in.
Scolamiero also stuck with the tried-and-true business hours of his father and grandfather, closing at 2 p.m. instead of staying open in the evening.
In retrospect, that was a mistake, Gazzillo said.
Then Scolamiero had a heart attack last spring. As he went through his life savings to keep the business going, he put the building up for sale.
No one expressed interest in a large building in the middle of a desolate block.
Making matters worse, on Dec. 27 the building next door caught fire, badly damaging his with smoke and water. Firefighters had to break down his door to fight the flames, and he only just got it replaced.
Now, as Scolamiero limps through his work day, he can barely look his employees in the eyes.
Gazzillo has flat-out begged him to stay open.
But it’s Sorbello’s silence that hurts the most.
Sorbello worked for his grandfather, then his father, and now him. She taught him everything he knows.
“She is like a mother to me. I’ve worked next to her all these years,” he said. “You get out of beauty school, you don’t know anything. I didn’t even know how to put a curler in someone’s hair.”
Sorbello said calmly, “They teach you the basics. But you need to get that state license.”
And then she taught him what he really needed to know.
She remembered his grandfather, the original Mr. James. He immigrated to Schenectady from Italy at age 4 and grew up here. He opened his salon 80 years ago.
“He took chances. If he didn’t have two dollars, he tried to make four dollars,” she said.
The man only got as far as fifth grade, Scolamiero said, but he did well in his chosen profession.
“He paid for everything out of pocket,” he said.
That led to difficult decisions, especially when he decided not to get insurance. Sorbello recalled the time when a fire burned a hole in the floor of the shop. James Scolamiero reopened the salon before the hole was even repaired.
“We kept working while they were fixing it,” she said with distaste.
Vito Scolamiero didn’t inherit his father’s tight-fisted ways, the youngest Scolamiero said.
“My father, if somebody came in asking for money, he’d give it to him,” he said with a laugh.
But Vito Scolamiero kept the business going anyhow. Before his death in 2011, he was looking forward to a new renaissance on lower State Street.
Mr. James is just a few doors down from the intersection with Erie Boulevard, and he was hoping that the improvements on the Proctors block and the planned redevelopment of Erie Boulevard would eventually revive his block.
It hasn’t happened yet, but plans are finally in the works. Two office buildings and a small upscale apartment complex are expected to open in a year or two.
Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said the projects, along with several others, will turn the street around.
“You put offices in there, you bring activity, and development follows,” he said. “It’s going to be residential and then the retail will follow.”
There is at least one developer interested in buying the Mr. James building, he added.
But he acknowledged that it’s difficult to keep a service business going on the block right now.
“One of the things he’s been hurt by is the Robinson site across the street, which is empty, and the general lack of activity,” Gillen said. “We’re bringing in more residential development. We’re bringing investors. We are really attacking lower State Street.”
But the renaissance, if it comes, won’t come soon enough to save Mr. James.
Stepping into the building is a step back in time. It still has chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. The walls are lined with pictures from Schenectady’s past — including the long-gone days in which lower State Street was filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Now, most of the hairstylists in the area have small shops, often rented. But there is one benefit to a multi-story building, as they discovered when an Afghan woman came in recently.
She wore a burka and explained that she could not take it off to have her hair cut because she could not be seen by any man other than her husband.
So Gazzillo took her upstairs to cut her hair.
She remembers being stunned by the woman’s long hair, which fell to her waist.
“She wanted it cut real short,” Gazzillo said. “She said it was so long because it took her years to talk her husband into letting her cut it.”
Gazzillo decided on a bob, afraid to cut too short.
“Anything shorter, that’s a big decision,” she said. “But she wanted it short. I guess after it took so long, she wanted it as short as possible.”
Scolamiero can barely stand the thought of saying goodbye.
“I don’t want to do anything else,” he said. “If I won a million dollars I’d stay here, I’d put it all in the business.”