A Cut Above the Rest: Camillo Damiano
With a thick Italian accent and eyes smiling behind his wiry glasses, Camillo Damiano takes a seat in the back room of his Tenleytown barber shop. He started the business in 1965, and since then generations of American University students have come to get a shave or a haircut.
“I got to the third or fourth generation of families,” Damiano says. “Fifty-one years is a long time.”
And he remembers the exact date he began: April 1, April Fool’s Day.
“[I bought the shop from] a nice gentleman, 85-years-old with a mustache, Melvin Crawford,” Damiano says. “And he had only two chairs.”
Gesturing around the back room, he explains, “This room here was the kitchen, and that box of newspapers over there was the bedroom, and the front was the barbershop. In those days you could do that. I bought the business; I expanded, you know.”
Business was slow at first, but Damiano prioritized advertising. With talk shows on AU’s radio station (offering free haircuts to those who answered trivia questions correctly) and flyers on the windshields of cars parked on the street, he managed to win a steady and loyal stream of customers.
“I’ve been coming here for over twenty years,” says Chris Lorrain, 58, who travels from Woodley Park just to get his hair cut at Camillo’s. Lorrain, who teaches at an independent school in the District, started coming to Camillo’s after a colleague recommended the traditional barbershop. He appreciated the professional atmosphere and the consistent quality – but what kept Lorrain coming back was how fast Damiano got to know him.
“We love to talk about food and wine and travel,” Lorrain says. Damiano’s suggestions came in handy for Lorrain recently when he went on a vacation to Italy with his wife.
“He recommended particular places in Tuscany to go and see, and foods to eat, and he really recommended visiting the vineyards and tasting the wines,” Lorrain says. “I trusted his judgement on that, and he was right.”
Even throughout the decades and changing hair trends, friendly banter and a warm personality never goes out of style.
“I was always busy,” Damiano says. “The only big change I can tell you is, when I start over here, it was long hair, the Beatles. And the barber business was really tough.” He laughs. “And then little by little, there was change. People start to trimming their hair, and medium, then short hair come back. It’s a cycle in this business, and maybe later on we’ll go back to long hair.”
Damiano has honed his hair-cutting skills for over 50 years now but learned his trade in his native country, Italy. As a ten-year-old boy, he began in his grandfather’s shop by sweeping the floors, and then graduated to providing haircuts on his own.
“I had a few nicks. I had to learn,” Damiano says.
He immigrated to the United States in 1962, thanks to an uncle who sponsored him, and moved to Astoria in New York City as a young adult. Arriving right around Christmas time, he still remembers the lights in the windows, as if welcoming him to America.
“I came down the airport, because they didn’t have taxis, and I came down the steps, and there was snow on the ground,” he recalls. “Brrrrr!”
He rubs his arms and laughs at the memory. “You know, it’s snow, it’s good luck.”
And Damiano has had good luck indeed.
“You see, my English, it’s a broken English. I came over here, with my sometimes accent, and I was still able to get a great clientele,” he says, smiling. “And I’m blessed with the cream of Washington.”
That’s not to say his accent hasn’t caused problems for him in the past though.
“One time, this client was complaining about gray hair,” Damiano says. “And I’m telling him, ‘You wanna color your hair?’ and he told me, ‘You wanna dye?’ and I didn’t understand.”
He gestures, pointing to himself and chuckling. “I was like ‘You want me to die? I want you to die?’ And he looked at me, and was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no!’”
Although Damiano no longer works in the shop due to a recent shoulder surgery, AU students and Tenleytown locals can still find him every day greeting his customers.
“He knows most of the people who come in here, even if he doesn’t know them by name,” Lorrain says. “And he’ll make a point of – especially for the people who have been coming here for some time – as they’re getting their hair cut, he’ll come up and ask them about their family.”
“He doesn’t pry into your life,” Lorrain says. “But he clearly remembers things about people and finds ways to give it that personal touch.”