Tommy Ghianuly — for nearly 60 years the owner of Compo Center Barber Shop, and for every one of those days one of the truly great human beings in town — died this morning.
In November, “06880” honored Tommy as our Unsung Hero of the Week. Here’s that story.
Compo Center Barber Shop is a throwback.
It’s not a salon. Not a “coiffeur.”
It’s exactly what its name says: a barber shop.
And it’s been that way for nearly 60 years.
Tommy Ghianuly was one of the first tenants when Compo Shopping Center opened up. Just out of the service, the Bridgeport native was in the right place at the right time.
Westport was booming. Artists, lawyers, commuters — all needed haircuts.
So did their kids.
Tommy was good. He loved to talk, and his customers loved their conversations.
Compo Barbers prospered. Through every trend — crew cuts, long hair, feathered hair, fades, back to short hair — Tommy adapted.
Times changed. He added female barbers. He had to get rid of his shoeshine guys.
The kids of Tommy’s first customers grew up. They married, moved back, and brought their own kids. Now he’s cutting the hair of their kids.
He saw so many stores in the shopping center come and go. McLellan’s. Lenette’s. Westport Record & Tape. Zaro’s. The Ice Cream Parlor.
Yet Compo Barbers — and Gold’s — are still there. And still growing strong.
Compo Center Barber Shop is one of the last vestiges of old Westport. You hear it in the casual conversations that take place in the waiting area. You see it in the warm, loving way Tommy greets all his customers — the ones who have come for 50 years, and the ones who just moved here last week.
You see the old Westport on the walls, too. For decades, Tommy has collected vintage photos. They show it all: the original Main Street. Horse-drawn trolleys. A long-ago blizzard that shut down the trains.
It’s a collection the Westport Historical Society would be proud to own.
Above the photos sits a speaker. The music — curated by longtime customer Dennis Jackson — is classic. There’s Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett. The other day, Frank Sinatra sang “My Way.”
Since 1959, Tommy Ghianuly has been doing it his way. That makes him our Unsung Hero of the Week.
If not the Month, Year or even Decade.
In 2011, Tommy Ghianuly was honored for what was then 50 years in business. Here’s the story I posted then:
Last Saturday, I got what’s left of my hair cut.
Not exactly blog-worthy — except for this:
When Tom Ghianuly — who has been my barber at his Compo shop since I was a teenager, and who cut my father’s hair for even longer — asked what was new, I couldn’t tell him.
I couldn’t mention that the next day, over 100 of his many customers, friends and admirers had planned a surprise dinner in honor of his 50 years in business.
It’s not easy to keep a secret from a barber — especially one as well-connected and curious as Tom — but these guys did.
The event was the brainchild of attorney Dick Berkowitz. He had help from a group that included Jim Schadt, Alan Nevas, Ron Gordon, Les Giegerich and Steve Siegelaub.
It’s a microcosm of Tom’s clients and fans: a former CEO of Reader’s Digest,a retired US District Court judge, a guy who built half of Westport — all there to honor their longtime, beloved barber.
Giegerich — 96 years old — was almost 50 when Tom started cutting his hair. Seigelaub was 5.
That half-century span spoke volumes about Tom.
So did the presence of the Brooks family — Tom’s longtime landlord at Compo Shopping Center. How often do landlords fete their tenants?
A few people spoke. They presented Tom and his wife Carolyn with a weekend at the Ocean House at Watch Hill.
In typical Tom fashion, he never expected anything like this — even after half a century of work, even after seeing the Birchwood Country Club parking lot filled as he and the Berkowitzes drove up. (Dick had told Tom he’d take him and Carolyn out to dinner.)
“Boy, this place is packed!” Tom said.
He had no idea it was packed for him.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff was one of the many Westporters already inside. When the ceremony began, he read a proclamation. Then he gave a framed copy to Tom, to hang in his shop.
I’m guessing that on Tuesday — when Compo Center Barber Shop reopened — Tom was embarrassed to put the proclamation up. He’s much more comfortable with the many photos of historic Westport he’s collected, and which line the walls.
But after 5 decades, Tom Ghianuly is a very important part of town history too.
May his soul rest in peace!
A truly fine and good person. Tommy will be missed.
What a sad way to start the day. Tom was a wonderful man.
Sad but I am blessed to have know such a kind man. 5 generations of my family, here and in heaven, are thinking of Tommy this morning all with a smile. God speed Tommy you will be remembered and missed.
“Men do not die until they are forgotten”
This is Sad news .. Tommy was a Wonderful Guy , with a Heart of Gold .. May you Rip my Friend
I am so saddened by this news. Is there anyone in Westport that hasn’t met this man? He will be missed. Nice guy! Condolences to the family.
I agree tommy will be missed
A very special guy. So sad .
If there ever was a Mr. Westport, then Tommy has to be it. A truly wonderful man who stood for decency and truly loved Westport. He will be missed in so many ways. He just may open up the first barber shop in Heaven.
I’ve known Tommie since i was 13 and the barbershop opened. My dad and Tom were close. Since my Dad’s passing Tommie has filled me in with how close. They really looked after one another but maybe they’ll see each other again. Love and will miss you Tommie
Got my crew cuts there from ‘58-65. RIP
So sad. Very special man.
Always a hug when he saw me.
Any word of services???
Deeply saddened. I do not choose to comment on your posts but this one time I will. Tommy was more than a fine human being, a barber, a husband, a brother, an uncle, a son and a friend. He was such a unique gentle man and gentleman. When I sat in Tommy’s chair, I was rarely there for a haircut; I was there to kibbitz with Tommy and we always loved and laughed at our throw-back conversations. We spoke of his upbringing, his back injury, his outings to catch famous jazz musicians in his youth(he saw them all), his cutting the hair of Michael Douglas and if I remember correctly, one Archibald Leach(for those too young, look up the name), and sooo many others. He told me of when he met the Duke in his travels out west when he was traveling for fun and on movie sets. How many know about Anthony Quinn’s gift to Tommy which hangs in his home? He regaled me with countless stories of his life and experiences, I felt as if he was the embodiment of what his generation stood for and what has been lost in the subsequent generations after his birth.
I am sad that we have lost a wonderful man, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with such a warm gentleman, I am disappointed in myself that I hadn’t seen him in a while, I am hopeful that his wife finds solace in knowing that he touched so many in ways that cannot be put into words.
Tommy, my wife and daughter(whom you always gave that lollipop to even into her teen years:) and I, wish you peace and want you to know that you touched us with your sincerity, kindness, and selflessness.
One of the real gentlemen. The most difficult thing for me will be telling my 4 year old daughter. Lilly loved going to see Tommy. Even if we were at CVS she wanted to stop by and give him a hug. I will never forget his smile.
Hug from Lilly and rest in peace
What a sweet man who listened and did a great job for my boys. (Although We did flowbee as long as we could get away with it) I remember my brothers getting their D.A. Haircuts from him many moons ago.
Mary Palmieri Gai Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Cell 203-984-2169 MaryGai@bhhsne.com
“Exceeding your highest expectations”
Tommy was the best. Never a cross word and always smiling even when he had shoulder pain. He was genuinely glad to see you. Tommy gave my son, now 63, his first haircut. I still have the photo. God bless Tom.
To echo what everyone else has said, my condolences to Tommy’s family. I don’t recall ever seeing Tommy without a smile. Not ever. He’s going to be greatly missed.
I am profoundly saddened by this news. Tommy was the best.
Heartfelt condolences to Carolyn and the entire family.
Was a loyal customer since growing up on Whitney Street behind Compo Shopping Center and for many years afterwards whenever I came to visit (1970s-2000s). I remember Tommy with great fondness and am saddened by the news. Rest in peace Tommy and condolences to all his family and friends.
I am so sorry. Tommy was a true sweetheart!
One of the best and a true part of old Westport. God speed sir and thank you.
How sad…Tommy was a gem…my family and I will miss him..
kind,funny,great conversationalist..Nothing phony . Honarable person
So sorry to hear this news. Tommie was a wonderful gentleman. I loved his warmth and his smile. Such a great and genuine person. Our whole family will miss him.
A great guy, got my haircuts there back in the 70’s back when I had a lot more hair. He’ll be missed. Glad Gold’s is still thriving. Remember McLellans 5&10 and Golden House restaurant too.
Tom was a gem. He loved Westport more than anyone I’ve ever met. And he was the legitimate keeper of our town’s history and culture. I loved sitting in Tom’s barber chair so that I could listen to his stories of growing up in Bridgeport, going to the Navy and how much the town changed for him over the years. He never lost his love for Westport even as the town grew in affluence and edge. He had a way of breaking down the class barriers and reminding everyone about what matters – family, friends and how you treat others. I always felt luck they I could go to Tom for a haircut and be part of his story, his history of our town. Dan isn’t kidding, he is the true unsung hero of Westport and will be dearly missed. I hope that his love for our town and his values stay with us even though we’ve lost him.
If there’s a heaven, they are in for alot of interesting stories!
I kept hoping that Tommie would make it back from this latest set back. Tommie was the best. I always looked forward to getting my hair cut by him over the last 29 years. And the stories; I don’t think he ever told me the same one twice. Old school and a real gentleman. There are many other stories where he went out of his way for his employees and others over the years. I hold my time with him as a precious gift. Wherever you are Tommie (and I know you’re in heaven) thank you. Sincere condolences to Carolyn and the rest of your family.
•Twas a beautiful thing!😊‼️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💙😊😊🌈
Sent from my iPhone Bobbi
I have lived in Westport since 1957 and have known Tommy for most of that time. He was my barber and he was my friend. He was a kind gentleman. I can’t remember him speaking a single angry word. He seemed to like everyone and it was genuine. I will miss him and our community will miss him. He was the real deal.
When I first moved to Westport 30 years ago, the town was already getting a little glitzy for my taste, even though I obviously liked it well enough to plunk down what at the time seemed a good bit of money to buy a house here. I already knew that Westport had an interesting history, and I immediately gravitated to the spots in town that tried to hold onto this. There was, of course, nothing “historic” about Tom’s shop – it was, after all, just a barber shop with a red-and-white pole in the window. However, inside it felt old-fashioned and felt like home because of the sense of community it conveyed, all radiating from the genial man working out of the first chair. The photos of old Westport that he kept on the wall behind him re-enforced the mystique.
My oldest son Carl was around three when we moved here, and his brother was born later in the same year. Their mother was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter, and she died when both boys were still young. They thus grew up in painful circumstances, and their early behavior showed it. As soon as they were old enough, I started taking them in to Tom’s for our haircuts every month or two. Running around and making noise, they could have been quite disruptive to his business, but Tom knew our family history and was always patient. He spoke to them in the tone of quiet authority that came naturally to him, and they always settled down right away.
They pulled themselves together later on, and after graduating from Staples in the year following 9/11, Carl joined the Navy. Every time he came home on leave, he made a beeline to Tom’s shop for a haircut whether he needed it or not. He found out something about Tom I never knew, which is that Tom himself had been in the Navy during the years following the Korean War. The two of them bonded over this, and I went in to the shop once with Carl and listened them swapping Navy stories like an old salt and a young recruit. Carl eventually left the Navy, went to college, got married, got a job and moved to the West Coast. He still went in to visit Tom every time he came home to Westport.
It would be presumptuous of me to say that Tom and I were close friends. I only saw him every couple of months and then only in his shop. I nevertheless always thought of him as a personal friend. I knew he hadn’t been in to work in a while, and the last time I was in the shop was just this past Friday. I asked Felice, the guy who usually cuts my hair, how Tom was doing, and Felice just shook his head. He didn’t want to say much. When I turned on my computer this morning and opened up Dan’s blog, I found out why. The fact it wasn’t a surprise didn’t make it any less of a shock.
When somebody in your life dies, a light seems to go out. Tom was an important light for me, and obviously for many others in town. My sympathy goes out to his wife, family and friends. We’re all blessed to have known him.
Tommy was my dad’s barber the whole time we lived in Westport– 60’s through early 70’s. I remember many a Saturday morning sitting in his barber shop while my dad got his haircut, and occasionally my sister and I got our hair cut much to our chagrin at the pixie cuts. Then trips to Food Fair, McClellan’s, library, pet shop, possibly a movie in downtown– ending in dinner at West Lake. Vintage Westport life. We went to Tommy’s shop in our early years for short hair cuts until we graduated to Rico’s hair salon with my mom for salon cuts — no more pixie cuts.
Tommy was a wonderful human being. He was my dad’s barber since 1965 when we first moved to Westport. My father religiously had his haircut by Tommy and the two of them were dear friends. When my father had his hips replaced and couldn’t travel to Tommy, Tommy came to our home to cut his hair and refused payment. He repeated this act of love and friendship again when my father had open heart surgery and once more couldn’t travel to Tommy’s barber shop.
Four generations of my family have had their hair cut at Compo Barber Shop.
We will all miss him and are deeply saddened by his passing.
I am so sad to hear of Tommy passing, he was such a great guy! Back in 1982, my mom and I opened a record store next door to Tommy’s barbershop in Compo Shopping Center. Tommy was always so kind to all of us…exchanging hair services for music and being such a good friend. After 21 years, when Mom retired and the store closed, she continued to stop in regularly to give Tommy a hug and say hello. Three years ago, when Mom passed away unexpectedly, I stopped in to give Tommy the news, he was so sad and so kind. RIP Tommy…you will be missed!
Almost anything I might say would be redundant in light of the many tributes to Tommy. But two things that haven’t been said in these posts are that he was a talented artist and that for years he pursued the unusual hobby of creating Bansai trees. He brought his drawings to the shop to show them to me and he often told me interesting tales of studying bansai with a demanding teacher. Tommy was one of a kind and I’m sure going to miss being entertained while getting my hair cut.
Larry: Tommy was a very talented artist. He also showed me his art work which he did years ago. I told him he truly missed his calling. They were excellent
So sad! Wonderful man, loved the business! My son had his first haircut there and would go when he was homr from college. Will be sorely missed!!!
I couldn’t agree more with everything that people have said. Tom was one of the good guys. I looked forward to his hilarious tales as a number runner as a kid in Bridgeport. We laughed a lot and shared stories about Westport in the last 50 years. I talked with his wife before the holidays. They were a wonderful couple. And I agree with my brother Steve that Tom was an extremely talented artist who might have missed one calling but he certainly didn’t miss his calling as a barber. There was no one better.
Tom was forever a true gentleman. As much of a master barber as he was a wonderful storyteller, he had such compassion and always made sure everyone was taken care of. If not, he would go out of his way to make sure they were. His stories of “old time Westport” would mesmerize me, and no sooner than I realized, the time would fly by and he would be finished cutting my hair. Tom was a Westport institution. After almost 60 years of starting his business, he touched so many people’s lives. I am fortunate to have been one of them. Rest in peace, Tom. You will be missed.
Hard to top any of the comments above. Every second spent in Tommy’s chair was a jem, one to be remembered and cherished. And I will make sure that jem lives on when I think of him and keep that conversation going.
In 2013 when my dad was terminally ill he asked me to call Tommy to let him know why he had not been coming in to get his haircut. Tommy and I figured out that he had been cutting my dad’s hair every month for 53 years.
When my three brothers and I were growing up we would of course be with my dad on Saturday mornings (though oft times reluctantly). Usually one of us and then my dad would end up in Tommy’s chair. By the numbers that is more than 1,200 haircuts.
The sights and sounds and smells and stories are indelibly etched in my own memory. Straight edge razors stropping on those leather straps. Shaving cream coming out of the little silver machine and spread onto the hairlines on men’s necks. And Tommy’s chair where so many stories of the lives of his customers were shared again and again. It’s quite remarkable, and while sad, it is something to be celebrated.
A prince amoung men, I can still feel his hugs. In a town that has erased history, his shop made me feel at home, the pictures of my grandfather and great grandfathers on the walls made me feel at home.
At 9 years old when we returned from Spain, Tommy was the first person to cut my hair that wasn’t a USN barber, 1959, and then later my children’s hair in the late 80’s.
Tommy could talk with anyone, mafia Dons ( no names), artists, politicians, actors, etc. all he cared about was your compassion. I will miss him forever.
All these comments, such beautiful testament to Tommy, underscore what my father, Dennis “Nisa” Bileca, knew from the first day he met Tommy in 1946. He had literally just arrived to Bridgeport from the old country, and Tommy was his first guide to the new homeland. They connected through their Arumanian heritage and quickly became each others’ lifelong best friends. I am told that in Tommy’s final days, he called out to his friend, my father, to bring him home. Though it is long, below are a few excerpts from my father’s memoirs which pays homage to him. May Tommy rest in peace for eternity with his friend Dennis.
“The first Wednesday after our arrival I attended classes that were taught by Father Vasilescu. I wore my finest clothes and was on my best behavior. I met the Arumanian children in the neighborhood, but only a few were my age and most everyone was older. I also discovered that most of the children did not speak Arumanian. They knew some words but could not hold a conversation. Only two or three spoke it, but with an accent. Most of the children were friendly, but one in particular stood out, Tom Ghianuly. Tom was my age and he was one of the three that spoke the language very well. He introduced himself after class and we bonded from the first day and have remained each other’s best friends ever since. I will discuss Tom in more detail later for he had much to do in forming my character and acquainting me with American ways. Many months later, I learned from him that my first day at school some of the boys were making fun of my knickers and manners, since I didn’t understand a word of English they would ask me if I like eating dirt and other less pleasant things and told to say “yes” at their prompting. Tom took pity on me and intervened on my behalf; at the end of the class he invited me to his home to meet his family. To Tom’s credit he never identified them to me…
On Real Friendship and My Friend Tom Ghianuly
I met Tom during the second week of my arrival at the church school. Tom invited me to his home when class ended. I met his parents, grandmother (“Maia”), and his three siblingss: Leo (8 years old), Nora (6), and Van (4). From the every beginning I felt “at home” with his family. They were warm and genuine people, especially his mother and Maia. Maia was not really his grandmother but his great aunt on his mother’s side. Tom’s mom, who was recently married, invited her to live with them after Maia’s husband died and being childless she had no one to care for her. The children grew up loving her as a Maia. She was a wise and soft spoken person. In time I also called and treated her as my grandmother and we shared many confidences and reminiscences together.
From the very beginning the single most important traits that made Tom standout above all other children were his natural kindness and perceptiveness. He also had a quick wit and a strong sense of humor. He has had a profound influence in reinforcing my character and sense of decency. For nine years we were inseparable; from that very first day until we were assigned to different battalions in the Navy Construction Battalion (Sea Bees) in 1955. Together we went through our childhood and teens. During our first summer we sold cool-aid used the money for soda, candy and going to movies. I became a shoeshine boy while he bought a newspaper route for home delivery. Later I also bought a newspaper route. On many Sundays after our deliveries we would take our brothers on our bicycles and go camping in the woods. We would cook on a campfire and explore the terrain and pretend we were in an African jungle or other exotic places. One summer we got a hold of a truck tire which we converted into a raft and the four of us would carry it to the beach and back. We had a wonderful time jumping off its sides’ exploring the sea shore playing imaginary games.
We were closer than brothers, we were popular and had many friends, especially in our teen years, but always we were at the center of our group. Not only did we play together as children, but as teens we worked together, and shared everything. I have never had a friend as close as Tom. Though life took us in different directions to this day I still consider him my best friend, I’m sure he feels the same. Many years later when I read Socrates’ dialogue Laches, it sounded like he was describing Tom and me. It’s obvious that the principles of friendship are universally experienced.
What is friendship? Certainly it’s more than mutuality of interest in playing and enjoying doing things together. This kind of friendship surrounds us in everyday life such as in schools, neighborhoods, work, or any group settings where individuals share time and space together. However, this type of “routine” or “social” friends, which may vary in intensity, is still not real friendship. One distinction I have observed is that real friendship generates unconditional loyalty similar to the love experienced with members in the family (a wife, child, or brother). Real friends are not blind to each other’s weaknesses but they choose to focus on the best traits within each other. They each want what is best for the other. It’s a human bonding based on unselfish and generous attitude. Sharing time and experiencing life together only acts to further cement the bonds of friendship. How does this, one of the most beautiful phenomena in life, come about? It is character that first attracts and it is the experiencing life together in play and discussion that creates the bonds that are eternal in the same fashion as family bonds. Everyday type of friendships come and goes according to circumstance and so far as serious disagreements don’t disrupt the relationship. Loyalty is not “absolute” as in real friendship. The attitude of everyday type friendship is more like “we’ll stay together so long as we enjoy each others company, but we part company if the situation changes or if we rub each other the wrong way.” Real friendship relishes the accomplishments and good fortunes that befall the other, it does not compare one to the other but accepts and cherishes the similarities and differences, it is a cooperative relationship and non competitive. It is “eternal” for no matter where life may take them – marriage, professions, geographical locations – their bond of loyalty endures. In the event one makes a mistake or makes a bad choice, the other will bring it into the open and discuss the problem in an atmosphere of good intent and genuine concern. Normally the situation is resolved, but if not the other accepts the decision without remorse. Without being conscious of it each brings out the best in the other. And so it has been with Tom and me. When we married we applied the same loyalty learned in our childhood and teens to our spouses and families.
I consider myself most fortunate for having the chance in life to have known at least one true friend.
I read a lot, but this may be the most beautiful statement about friendship that I’ve ever come across. You and Tom were both lucky men to have experienced it.