Everyone knows the oldest company in Westport: Gault.
Founded in 1863, it’s been a Saugatuck mainstay for 153 years.
At 89 years old, Riverside Barber Shop could be Gault’s grandchild.
But after nearly 9 decades here, it’s probably Westport’s 2nd oldest company.
“Riverside” may be a misnomer. For its first 82 years it was indeed located on Riverside Avenue — a few yards away from Gault.
For over 8 decades Riverside Barber Shop sat on Riverside Avenue (right). DeRosa’s restaurant was on the left.
In all those years, there were just 4 owners. John Santella opened it in 1927. His son Lou — the legendary “Mayor of Saugatuck” — took over from John. In 1999 Lou retired, and sold his shop to Pat Vigilio.
In 2009 Pat moved Riverside Barber to Post Road West — above Greg & Tony’s salon — when as part of the Saugatuck Center project, his building and the adjacent DeRosa’s restaurant were torn down.* (Pat donated his barber pole to the Westport Historical Society.)
Pat recently retired. The new owner is Tammy Stefanidis. She worked for Pat for 7 years, then spent the next few at home, raising her family.
Now she’s back.
Tammy Stefanidis, new owner of the very old Riverside Barber Shop.
Tammy knows the barber shop’s history. She’s proud that longtime — very longtime — customers keep coming back. She doesn’t plan any big changes.
But she does have one interesting offer.
If you’d like to donate your hair to Locks of Love — the non-profit providing hairpieces to children and teenagers suffering medical hair loss — stop in to Riverside Barber Shop.
Tammy will cut it for free.
*Bonus fact: Saugatuck Center was developed by Gault.
We’ve lost more than a great, gregarious Westporter. And we’ve lost more than a beloved barber. For years Lou was the unofficial mayor of Saugatuck. As that storied part of town races toward redevelopment — his old Riverside Barber Shop is already closed — we’ve lost one more important link to our past.
Years ago, I wrote a “Woog’s World” column on Saugatuck. The idea wasn’t mine; it was Lou’s. We were talking at the Italian Festival, and he said, “You never write anything about Saugatuck.”
He was right.
He said that Saugatuck is “the real Westport — the soul of the town.” He offered to give me a tour. I jumped at the chance.
We started, fittingly, in his barber shop. Gesturing broadly — with his big hands — Lou said, “No matter where they live, people from here consider Saugatuck home.”
Without pausing to think, Lou rattled off a list of families. There were judges, policemen, teachers, contractors, firemen, restaurant owners, and everything in between.
Those were his people. We got in his big car, so he could show me his world.
Lou drove up Charles Street, where St. Anthony’s Festival once reigned every summer. He pointed to a nondescript building. Tucked away under the roof was a statue of Saugatuck’s patron saint. “As far as my mother was concerned, Jesus works for St. Anthony,” Lou joked.
On Franklin Street Lou described the grape arbors, plum trees and beautiful gardens of years gone by.
Then he motioned to a parking lot. “The house I was born in used to be here,” Lou said. “And over there was a little grocery store. My uncle owned it. You could get anything there.”
Lou Santella and his wife Marge.
Every few yards brought a new story: how the Nisticos founded the original Arrow restaurant, on the corner of Franklin and Saugatuck. The pub that sat where Dunville’s is now. The devastation I-95 caused when it was built. “People had to move,” Lou noted. “Not far, but out.”
On Saugatuck, near the Exit 17 northbound ramp, I gazed right past a green plot of land. “I used to live there too,” Lou said quietly.
We turned onto the oddly named Dr. Gillette Circle, but I didn’t even have to ask. “They built this when the highway came through,” Lou said. “A lot of these houses were moved here. Dr. Gillette was our doctor. He was a very special man.”
And so it went. I saw a bank branch office; Lou saw the wooden row houses that once stood there, and the fireworks that always made the firemen work overtime. I stared at the unsightly Charles Street office complex; Lou described the store it replaced, owned by Joe Arcudi’s father. And Luciano Park — well, it’s been in Saugatuck even longer than Lou (though the name dates “only” to the late ’60s), but Lou remembers the bocce courts there.
Our tour ended back at Lou’s barber shop. Across the street, he explained, was the old Sons of Italy hall, and a cable grip factory.
“This is the heart and soul of Westport,” Lou repeated. “I’m so proud I grew up here. No doubt about it.”
I’m so proud to have taken that tour. I’m so proud to have known Lou, to have called him a friend, and to have been able to describe his Saugatuck — in his own words, far more eloquent than mine — to the rest of Westport.
Lou’s death is more than a loss to Saugatuck, and the entire town. It’s the end of an era we will never see again.
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