NAUGATUCK — The landscape of downtown Naugatuck has changed significantly over the past 50 years or so, with factories closing and new shops coming and going. During it all, there was Antonio “Tony” DiManto behind his barber chair in Tony’s Barber Shop on Church Street.
DiManto hung up his scissors at the end of April.
DiManto, 84, was born in Sant’Agata de’ Goti, Italy. As a young man in Italy, DiManto took an apprenticeship, cleaning a barber shop while learning to cut hair. The only payment was experience, he recalled.
“There’s no barber school over there. You have to learn under your father or brother or someone,” DiManto said. “But when I started to work on the customers, he had to pay me.”
In 1966, DiManto, his wife and their four young children immigrated to America in search of a better life.
The family settled in Waterbury, said Gianna Dauphinais, one of DiManto’s daughters, and DiManto took a job as a janitor. While he worked as a janitor during the day, DiManto would take a bus a night to Hartford to work toward earning his barber license.
DiManto had trouble finding work as a barber at first because he spoke very little English, Dauphinais said. That changed when Larry Magone, a barber with a shop in Naugatuck, asked DiManto to come work for him.
DiManto got to know the people of Naugatuck and, after Magone retired in 1967, he opened Tony’s Barber Shop at 74 Church St.
Dauphinais said people from around Naugatuck, including the former Uniroyal and Peter Paul factories, came to the shop, and continued coming back again and again for the next five decades.
“He would go to Italy every year for three weeks. His customers would not go anywhere else. They would wait,” Dauphinais said. “All of his customers came to him and never left because they liked the old-fashioned barber shop setting. They said they don’t know where they are going to go now.”
Dauphinais said she remembers going to the shop on the weekends as a child. Customers who worked at Peter Paul would bring in chocolates and customers who worked at Uniroyal would sometimes bring shoes.
“Naugatuck was our other home at the time,” Dauphinais said.
DiManto returned his customers’ loyalty. Even though he eventually moved from Waterbury to Wolcott, he never thought of moving his shop out of the borough.
One of those customers was Naugatuck Tax Collector Jim Goggin, who had been going to the Tony’s Barber Shop for decades.
Goggin said DiManto was part of the heart of downtown Naugatuck and always knew what was going on in the borough.
“He was just a really, really nice guy,” Goggin said.
For DiManto, being a barber was as much about building relationships as it was cutting hair.
Tony’s Barber Shop was closed on Mondays, but that didn’t mean DiManto stopped being a barber. On his day off, DiManto volunteered his services at convalescent homes in Naugatuck, Dauphinais said.
“He figured the seniors couldn’t get out and go see anybody, so he did that for many years. They all used to wait in line for him,” Dauphinais said.
DiManto finally called it a career due to health concerns. Tony’s Barber Shop closed for good April 30 with a final goodbye celebration that included visits from former customers and a proclamation from Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess and Wolcott Mayor Thomas Dunn.
“When people came in and gave him cards, he thanked them. He said he felt they were so loyal,” Dauphinais said.
Now that he is retired, DiManto plans to spend time with his family, including his 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Although he doesn’t have to go to work every day, DiManto isn’t planning on simply sitting around. There’s work to be done around the house and in his garden, and wine to be made.
Even still, DiManto said he’ll miss his customers.
“I had beautiful customers,” DiManto said.