The sign the old barber taped on his Market Street window read matter-of-factly, cheerily even.
He’d lost his lease, but never fear — he was moving right across the street. Thanks!
But behind the sign, in the homey embrace of his salon, the old barber wept. “Terrible,” Tony Martone said. After a few hairs under a half-century of working in the same spot on Market Street, Martone worried the end had come.
He had a lifeline, yes: a rented chair in a salon just off the food court in the concourse of the Lit Bros.’ building. And Tony is, after all, 75. He knows the day is fast approaching when he’ll have to hang up his clippers. But you can know the end is coming and still be surprised by it. Heartbroken, even.
And Tony was nothing if not that.
“It stabbed me in the heart,” he said, recalling the fall day when five out-of-town suits showed up to size up his shop. (As a sign of protest, Tony would let them in only one at a time. Kim Smith, his only remaining employee, cried.)
Tony’s been signing three-year leases forever and asked his latest landlords, Brandywine Realty Trust, if they couldn’t just do it the same old way. He’s 75, after all.
In the meantime, Brandywine found some banking clients. Goodbye, Tony.
The new guys told Tony they were thinking of maybe putting a bank of ATMs in the space where he’s worked since 1970.
So Tony began to pack up his shop.
Anyone who reads this column knows I’m a sentimental guy. But there may be no harder building on Market Street to wax sentimental about than the gray monstrosity at the corner of Seventh and Market that houses a parking garage and, below it, Tony’s shop, the Colonial Deluxe. It’s a building the Inquirer, not too long ago, rightly described as the “ugliest dog” on Market East.
But it’s Tony Martone’s dog and proof that even on a street that’s cried out for change for so long, there are still some things at least deserving of a proper goodbye.
Inside, his shop looks like a time-capsule of the 1970s, complete with laminate counters, kitschy floral wallpaper, and ferns — and then there are the six leather chairs, a 100-year-old marble shoeshine stand, and an antique Dr Pepper machine that still spits out sodas for 50 cents. Every piece has got to go.
“I hope I can sell it,” Tony says. “Terrible.”
He immigrated to South Philly from Italy when he was 14 and worked his way up to the Colonial Deluxe, along the way raising a family. For nearly 50 years, from his salon window, Tony’s seen the bustle of his street giving way to decline — and now, finally, rebirth.
His building was originally part of the Rohm & Haas complex, the chemical corporation that dominated the street for years. In the 1970s, he remembers, there were scrapped plans for a skyscraper above his shop, then a luxury hotel.
But still, every time Tony twirled his chair, another customer was always there to plop down for conversation and a haircut, whether it be a judge at the new federal courthouse or a department-store worker, or a diner from next door at Honey’s. Sometimes it was a star from The Mike Douglas Show, which filmed nearby. Once, Tony says, it was Zsa Zsa Gabor, in town for Mike. She was kind of mean, Tony allowed.
Then Rohm & Haas left, and so did the restaurants, and the palm reader a few doors down. Obviously courting some kind of Philadelphia curse, in November the new guys ushered out Jerry Blavat, the Geator with the Heater, whose radio show broadcast from the block.
“Tony represents when you would go to a barbershop, get a shave, your hair groomed and looking great, and a facial massage — and be on your way to make a date with a beautiful lady," the Geator said. “He’s old school — and it’s done, and I feel so badly.”
Most of Tony’s employees were already long gone.
“Most of my stylists have died,” he said. Now it’s just him and Kim, who arrived at the store by accident 37 years ago: On her way to another job interview, someone jumped in front of her El train. So she got off, walked Market, and found Tony. She’s stuck with him. “I don’t like change,” she said.
But change is what’s coming. And the back-and-forth routine of Tony and Kim — “Yo, Dad!” she’d yell whenever a customer mistakes him for her father — has given way to tears.
“I’m just going to go bald when he leaves,” said Mike Malatesta, popping in for his 12:30 appointment.
In between cuts, Tony fields the calls, telling everyone about his chair in the food court across the street.
“Same hours, same money, same service — everything is going to be exactly the same,” he says, trying to remain hopeful.
Well, almost the same. His customers have promised to follow him. Maybe, Tony tells himself, it won’t be so terrible.