Waterford barber celebrates 25 years of acceptance in shop and community
Waterford — When Michelle Ramos first opened her own barbershop in 1997, she opted to go against the barbershop naming norms.
"I didn't want to put my name on it," she said. "It was The Barber Shop."
Ramos said female barbers were less common at the time. As a gay woman, she said she feels pride in having been accepted for who she is in her shop — now known as the Jordan Village Barbershop and Salon — and in the community.
"I always spoke about my identity matter-of-factly. If somebody asked about my husband, I would say my wife," she said.
She didn't recall her LGBTQIA+ identity ever impacting her customer interactions.
"I guess maybe because I'm comfortable with who I am," she added.
During the 1990s there had been an emergence of unisex salons, and women typically cut men's hair at salons as opposed to barbershops. Ramos didn't want to deter men who preferred the barbershop experience.
After earning her cosmetology and barbering license at a hairdressing school in 1992, Ramos quickly gravitated toward barbering. She said she enjoyed many aspects of cosmetology such as hair color but she reallyenjoyed clipper and scissor work with shorter hairstyles. She sharpened her barbering skills at the Coast Guard Academy's barbershop on campus for a month. She worked at Hair World in Groton for one year but soon missed doing barbering work. Soon after, she decided to become a barber at John's Barbershop in Groton.
Ramos got an opportunity to own her own shop through her father's barber.
Her father John Jalonski's barber was Jack Martin, the owner of Paul's Barbershop in the Jordan Village section of Waterford. Martin asked if she would be interested in taking over his shop when he retired, possibly in one year. Eight months later, he was ready to retire and formally offered his barbershop business to 24-year-old Ramos.
"He didn't want to tell his customers that he was retiring," she said. "All these old guys were coming in expecting to see Jack. They said, 'Where's Jack?'"
At The Barber Shop located on 91 Rope Ferry Road in Waterford, Ramos said her first challenge as a barbershop owner was keeping Jack's customers. She needed them to trust that females can be barbers.
"You have to find a new barber or stay and try me out," Ramos said to Jack's regular customers. "Some guys stayed, and some guys left. A lot came back. And it just grew from there."
Over the years, Ramos reassured her inherited clientele that they were going to get a good haircut. She advertised minimally and benefited from word-of-mouth recommendations.
The barbershop was expanded, relocated and renamed in the much larger space on the far right of the building in 2013. That original spot for Waterford's Post Office and then later, a series of hair salons, it now features a six-chair barbershop and a four-chair salon.
Ramos has a core staff of four barbers who each have their expertise, style and personality. Eileen Caputo, who Ramos referred to as the "quiet little lady who dotes on kids" joined the shop in 2006.
Tracy DeLaura, who joined the team in 2012, loves to learn what her young customers are doing and has been known to go to their games.
Ryan Schrader has been there since 2014. He's known for his designer touch and the barbershop's "We fix quarantine cuts" T-shirt campaign.
Louie Pika, 86, who started barbering in 1957 at the Thames Barber Shop in New London and owned the shop for 56 years, decided to work at Jordan Village Barber Shop a couple of days per week "just to get the hell out of the house." He loves meeting the customers and listening to their stories.
Ramos said her business goal has always been to stick with tradition and family values rather than being "trendy for the minute." She said her barbershop's success was due to a special formula in customer relations.
"We are geared towards family, on their lives and what they do," Ramos said, something she has always told anyone working with her. "Leave out religion. Leave out politics. We can always find common ground with anybody. That's what keeps the shop uplifted and a fun place to be."
Rick Beany, 59, has been a customer for 20 years. He appreciated the shop's modern approach during the COVID-19 pandemic which enabled him to log on to Waitlist, a smart phone application that allowed him to select his service, barber and haircut time. It alerted him with his place in a virtual line of customers. He also mentioned that Ramos takes an interest in the community by donating to local fundraisers and hanging flyers in the shop.
"They're good at what they do," Beany said about the barbers at the shop. "I like going there. I like talking to them. They're a good community."
Liz Sutman, 48, has taken her four sons — 22-year-old Walker, 20-year-old Payton, 18-year-old Will and 15-year-old Brady — to the shop for 20 years. She said that Jordan Village Barber Shop has always made it a comfortable and fun place for her family. She remembers taking three of her sons there for their first haircuts.
"I remember being covered in hair. They would be moving all around. They got a lollipop at the end," Sutman said. "I loved going there with my boys. We'd line up and get haircuts for the four of them. We'd sit for a couple of hours. That was the afternoon."
Sutman has been a customer since Michelle Ramos was single, before she married her partner, Danielle Ramos.
"As a couple, one thing we're most proud of is that we were each able to have one of our children," Michelle Ramos said. She carried their 17-year-old daughter Mia while Danielle carried their 11-year-old son Eli.
It was a plus that Michelle Ramos had grown up in Waterford because many people in town knew her. Her family had much in common in town with her customers' families. at the same sports and local events.
"I love seeing the kids grow up. I get to listen to what they're doing," Ramos said, referring to what she enjoys most about being a barbershop owner. "I get to see people I went to school with and now they bring their kids to me."