GENEVA — Melissa Peters has had customers tell her they’re thinking of leaving their wife. She’s heard them share other very personal thoughts, including the death of loved ones and joyous occasions in their lives.
She says some view her as a therapist because she dispenses advice when asked.
She does all this while cutting their hair.
Peters has operated Melissa’s Barber Shop on Seneca Street since 2001, clipping away at thousands of heads and enjoying the back-and-forth, give-and-take banter of barber shop conversation. She’s also somewhat rare in that she’s a woman whose primary clients are boys and men.
She’s not a hairdresser, although she is a licensed cosmetologist. While a student at Geneva High School, she attended Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES to learn about cosmetology. After graduating in 1998, she worked as a certified nurse assistant a short time and cut hair on the side.
“I was interested in cosmetology early in high school,” she said earlier this week. “I cut my dad’s hair, my mom’s hair, and experimented on my younger sister.”
Eventually, she decided to make a career of what she considered her true calling. She received her state license and joined the staff at Karizma Salon on Exchange Street, cutting and styling hair for mostly women.
She struck out on her own in 2001, renting her current shop and working alone as a barber, catering to boys and men.
Asked why, she hesitated.
“Less drama with males,” she said. “Men are more laid back. I like the barber shop environment, and so do the men.
“I’m a people person. I like the different conversations that take place here,” she added. “I can go back and forth on certain topics, but it’s all mellow. I want everyone to feel comfortable here.”
Sixteen years later, she has no regrets. She said she will still cut a woman’s hair if they want it short, but doesn’t do styling of long hair. Nor does she have a sink for shampooing. She only accepts cash or check for payment and has installed an ATM machine to emphasize the point.
“I opened the doors and hoped for the best,” she recalled. “It was slow at first and took a while to build a reputation and clientele, but they came. I have many guys who’ve been coming here for 16 years.
“When I started, upper Seneca Street was pretty dead. Not much to generate traffic. Today, it’s much more lively and business has been good. No complaints.”
Things went so well she bought the building she’s in at 99-101 Seneca St. in 2011.
She said one of her saddest memories was when one of two teenage brothers from Waterloo who often came in together to get haircuts died in an auto accident.
“I was devastated, especially when the other brother came in alone,” she said. “He handled it better than I did.”
There are plenty of laughs, jokes and good-natured ribbing too.
Her shop does walk-ins only.
“I do everyone from little 2-year-old boys to teenagers to college kids to all ages of adults, right up to the older men,” she said.
Earlier this fall, she added a second chair, hiring Genevan Dominic “Dutchie’’ Venuti to form a two-person shop.
“I was always going to hire a second barber,” Peters said. “As a single mother of two kids, ages 8 and 10, I want to have a backup if I had an emergency or the kids were sick. With Dutchie, I can go and not have to shut the doors.”
Venuti used to get his hair cut by Peters. When he expressed an interest in barbering, she encouraged him to go to school and get his license, and she’d consider hiring him — Peters said the volume of business justified a second barber.
He called her bluff.
“I finished school in July, and, after getting my license, I started here in October,” Venuti said.
Peters will visit a person’s home, hospital room or nursing home to cut hair if the customer can’t make it to the shop.
“I get to share birthdays, new grandchildren, adoptions, births and other happy things with customers who come in,” she said. “They are open with me, asking for advice, which is why I joke about being a therapist. I give it if I can.”
“All in all, I have no regrets. I plan to stay right here. I like it.”