By SUE PASCOE AND BILL BRUNS
Through business booms and recessions, changing demographics, and an evolving business district, the Palisades Barber Shop–established in 1940–has thrived on Antioch Street, between Swarthmore and Via de la Paz.
In fact, the shop is the town’s oldest surviving retail business, thanks to the expert stewardship of Joe Almaraz, who began cutting hair there in 1962 and has been the owner since 1983.
In recognition of his shop’s history and his involvement in the community, Almaraz recently received the 2020 Bob Sage Business Person of the Year Award from the Palisades Rotary Club.
Annually, the Rotarians honor a person who lives and/or works in Pacific Palisades and holds a senior-level management position.
Almaraz has lived here since 1989 (he and his wife won the Fourth of July home decorating contest in 2011) and he’s a “CEO” with three other barbers on his staff: his two sons and his daughter-in-law.
Bob Sage nominees must also have “demonstrated leadership within the Palisades and the nominee’s own industry and exhibit a character of ‘Service Above Self.’”
Service above self? Joe patiently gives crying three-year-olds their first haircut, and makes house calls for elderly clients who can’t get out. He also tries hard to accommodate special requests.
In 2004, for example, he was closing the shop and eager to go home. “A woman called and said, ‘Can you take one more?’ I told her no,” Joe recalls. “But she pleaded, ‘Please, please, he’s a Presidential candidate–Dennis Kucinich.’ I wanted to say, ‘Who’s he?’ but I just said, ‘Okay, bring him over.’ He was visiting people here in town. We talked as I cut his hair, but I can’t remember what we said.”
On a recent Saturday, while having his hair cut by Joe during a visit by CTN, Marvin Kaphan, 94, explains why he’s a faithful customer. “Joe’s charming, his discussions are good and he’s on top of the world about everything that is going on.”
Almaraz jokes to CTN, “This is an informative exchange.”
After graduating from Santa Monica High in 1959, Joe graduated from the American Barber College in downtown L.A. and joined the Barbers Union. Looking for a job, he heard about an opening in Pacific Palisades.
“I didn’t know where that was,” Joe recalls, and when he was driving up Chautauqua for the first time, “I didn’t think my car was going to make it. Initially, that hill is very steep.”
Joe was hired by Vince Mangio, who owned three barber shops in town: The current shop, a second (Bob’s Barber Shop) in the space now occupied by the Chamber office, and a third, New Classics, across from the future Mort’s Deli.
Almaraz says that the Palisades was a bedrock middle-class community back then, though a variety of Hollywood stars lived in various neighborhoods. He was surprised to find that the principal and many of his former teachers and coaches from Santa Monica High lived here. He was only about 21 but they became his customers.
Joe was also soon introduced to local controversies. “About 55 years ago, people wanted to plant palm trees on Antioch, but the street was so narrow there was opposition,” he says. “The tree people won and today the palms are quite high but people don’t even notice.”
In 1983, owner Mangio sold the shop to Joe, but kept working two days a week in the front-window chair. That was fine by Joe, who notes that “Vince was my mentor.”
Alas, about a year later, Vince suffered a fatal heart attack while at his chair working. “There was a cardiologist getting his hair cut at that time,” said Joe’s older son, Jose, Jr. “He told us afterwards that Vince ‘died before he hit the floor.’”
Almaraz and his wife Nina have three children: Jose Jr. (also known as JR), Tom and Patricia, a realtor in Westchester. JR started working at the shop in 1984, followed by his wife, Lucy, in 1989, and Tom in 1991. There are six grandkids (Tommy, Cindy, Joseph, Travis, Pricilla, Katy) and one great-grandchild, Joshua.
Over the decades, the Almaraz clan has cut hair for dozens of celebrities, some of them regular customers for years, others who were just passing through or in town visiting a friend. During an interview with CTN, the barbers cite some of them:
Walter Matthau, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Rodney Dangerfield (who instructed Joe, “Short—the hair and the conversation”), Charlie Sheen, Christian Bale, Tesla’s Elon Musk, astronaut Buzz Aldrin (yes, they gave him a buzz cut), actor Joseph Cotten, James Arness, Charles Bronson, Sal Mineo, James Whitmore, Ron “Tarzan” Ely, Michael Richards (“Seinfeld”), John Goodman, Eddie Albert, Ted Knight, Adam West, Peter Graves, Steve Guttenberg, Martin Short, Mark Harmon, Kurt Russell, Burgess Meredith, Ryan O’Neal, Peter Fonda (“My favorite,” says JR), John McEnroe, the NBA’s Vlade Divac, Vin Scully, author Shelby Foote, Olympian Bob Mathias and Broadway’s John Raitt (“Every once in a while he’d hum a little tune,” says Tom).
“I remember one day we had Bruce Willis in the front chair and Billy Bob Thornton in another,” JR says.
That reminds Joe about the time Dom DeLuise brought Buddy Hackett with him. “When I was finished, Dom said, ‘We’re going across the street for a quick bite.’ They went to the Chinese restaurant and were there for three hours.”
The proprietor enjoys recalling the shop’s famous clients, but he emphasizes to CTN, “The most important people are regular people—our loyal customers here in town.”
He is asked what advice he would give to business newcomers in Pacific Palisades.
“To know the community,” he says, noting that so many new business owners “don’t know what people like. They don’t know what people want. They don’t know what is affordable.”
Joe is pleased that a hardware store [Anawalt] is coming back to replace Norris Hardware. “We need one of those,” he said, adding that the town used to have lots of small, mom-and-pop businesses, owned by local residents.
“In the old days we used to know every business owner in town,” says Joe, a long-time member of the Chamber and the Lions Club. “Now we hardly know any of them.”
He was asked what kind of store he’d like to see in the Palisades. “A good old-fashioned diner like Mort’s or Art Poole’s.”
Joe, who is now 78, said he experienced a slight stroke on November 15. “It took me about a month to come back,” he says, and he knows it’s time to contemplate his retirement. “I’m planning to retire within a year or two, and then I’ll continue to work part-time.” But he knows this will be a difficult transition.
“I’m going to miss the people—the social connections,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed knowing so many people.”
Yet first, Joe and his family members are planning to celebrate the shop’s 80thanniversary later this year, and to toast a surviving antique from another era.
“The clock on the wall is from 1940,” says JR, “and it’s never behind.”