The immigrant experience in Canada oftentimes means decades of hard work, in spite of the odds, to create a better future for those who come after.
For Carmine Cello, owner of Nordel Barber Shop, even being diagnosed with terminal cancer couldn’t stop him as he built a legacy to pass on to his son.
Carmine has been running his shop off 84th Avenue and 112th Street since April 1987, choosing the Lower Mainland over Baltimore to put down roots. In the time since, he has amassed a customer base that spans generations.
Tony Deane, co-owner of Southridge Hardware (located across the parking lot from the barbershop), has been getting his hair cut at Nordel Barber Shop on and off since he was in elementary school. It’s also where he took his kids to have their hair cut before they started making their own stylistic choices. Sometimes, Deane mused in the back of his hardware store, he’d walk into a boisterous atmosphere at Carmine’s shop.
“His roots are North Delta, and my roots are North Delta, it’s a good place to go in. It’s almost like Cheers,” he said, referring to the popular TV show where “everybody knows your name.”
“At times, you can have 20 people in there and only maybe two are getting their hair cut. The environment is just awesome.”
Though Carmine has had to drastically cut down on work since starting treatment for liver and stomach cancer, the 72-year-old still comes in part-time to cut hair or hang out and drink espresso with his favourite customers. He said it’s mostly to keep occupied, lest his mind veer to darker places.
“I have both feet in the grave, otherwise what are you going to do? Sit on a stupid couch?” he said, pointing from his kitchen towards the living room where a TV was tuned to an Italian channel.
Carmine’s first year in Canada was “bad,” he remembered. He arrived from Italy on Canada Day in 1969, and by July 4 he had found a job in construction, paving roads in Thunder Bay, Ont. in the middle of the summer. Construction in that part of the country could only last a few months because of the weather, and he saw that he needed something more tenable for the long-term.
He decided to enroll in barber school in Winnipeg that winter, where it was not much better when it came to seasonal hardship.
“When the bus got to Winnipeg, about 8:30, 9:00 in the morning, you couldn’t see three feet ahead of you over the snow and everything,” he recalled.
“I didn’t know nobody, I just had the school address and couple of dollars in my pocket.”
A fellow barber school student from Germany let him crash at his place for a couple of weeks before Cello found a place of his own. After nine months learning the trade, Carmine returned to Thunder Bay, only to realize there was not much need for barbers. In the 1970s, long hair was the fashion and he went back to school in Toronto to build on his skills at George Brown College.
Carmine considers himself part of the old way of doings things, working hard no matter what goes on in your life, and he credits his success to his commitment to his customers and the community.
“He does come in every day just to talk to the customers,” said his son, Anthony Cello, second-in-command at Nordel Barber Shop. These days, Anthony has all but taken over the business from his father.
“For him, it’s more of a social thing now. He’ll cut two or three day, but he can’t do more than that because of the [chemotherapy].”
The elder Cello’s commitment to his shop and its customers is nothing to mess with. While he underwent chemo therapy he would still work full-time at the barbershop, taking days off only to make doctor’s appointments. He’d even bring his take-home chemotherapy kit with him to the shop.
“The only days he missed was the days that he was actually at the hospital doing chemo because it was for eight hours,” Anthony explained, adding that despite doctors’ early predictions his father had only months to live, his dad has made it two and a half years since he was first diagnosed.
“The words that one customer used were, ‘Wow, I don’t think I could do what your dad did, coming in everyday and carrying on like nothing’s the matter,’” Anthony said.
He credits the business and the people who come in each day for helping his father beat the odds.
“If it wasn’t for the barbershop and the customers that we have, my dad wouldn’t be here today. The customers at the shop gave my dad a reason to live, along with his family,” Anthony said, adding that his father was able to witness the birth of Anthony’s daughters, contrary to what doctors told the family.
“They said he was going to be around for one Christmas. Now he’s been around for three Christmases, and another Christmas would be nice, too.”
Deane said Camine’s shop still retains a communal vibe, which he argued many places have been losing, especially in and around big cities.
“You establish those relationships with people … at the barber shop. To a certain degree, it’s still that way, he brings that kind of magic.”