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Definition of a gentleman: Longtime barber looks back on career

Leo Martinez, owner of Albuquerque’s Gentleman’s Barber Shop, retired recently after 60 years of cutting hair and making friends. He said the barbering trade has been good to him. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There was one period, a span of about 10 years back in the 1960s and ’70s, when Leo Martinez thought perhaps he had made a mistake by becoming a barber.

“That was when long hair was in,” said Martinez, 82. “But people weren’t coming in.”

And when people with long hair did visit his shop, Martinez was not comfortable working on them.

“Cutting long hair is an art in its own,” he said. “We were never trained to cut long hair. I was ready to go back to school and learn another profession.”

But he didn’t. He worked through that long-hair low point, much to the relief of a legion of faithful customers who have become friends and extended family.

When Martinez finally hung up his clippers, combs and blades on Sept. 28, he had been in the barbering trade for 60 years. And he knows now that his career was no mistake.

“It has been good to me,” he said. “I have enjoyed it. I like cutting hair, and I like the customers. You get to know them. I know their life, and they know mine.”

Emotional attachment

Leo Martinez laughs with longtime patron Jesse Herrera the day before Martinez retired from barbering. “I like the customers,” Martinez said. “I know their life, and they know mine.” (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’ve been coming to Leo since 1975,” said Bill Lawrence, 74, as Martinez cut his hair at Gentleman’s Barber Shop, 3012 Altez NE. It was the day before Martinez’s retirement.

“He gives good haircuts and conversation,” Lawrence said. “We’d talk about travel, about what I was doing and the local political absurdities.”

In 1975, Lawrence worked for a realty business that was near Martinez’s barbershop.

“I walked around the corner and found Leo,” Lawrence said. “When I first came here, my hair was dark. But Leo has cut away all the dark hair and left just the white.

“I can’t believe this is going to be my last time.”

Martinez only decided to retire a month or so ago, so Manuel Romero, 67, did not realize he was about to get his last haircut from his longtime barber when he and his wife, Felajane, stopped in at Gentleman’s Barber Shop on Martinez’s second-to-last day. Romero, who is retired from the Albuquerque Police Department, lives in Taylor Ranch. He said his only reason to go east of the Rio Grande in recent years has been to get a Leo Martinez haircut.

“I used to patrol this area,” Romero said. “Another (police) officer recommended I come here, and I have been coming since I was 28 or 29. I don’t have that much hair left, but I still come here because I’m particular. And because (like Martinez), I’m an Oakland Raiders fan. I’ve developed an emotional attachment coming here.”

“I’m going to miss you guys,” Martinez said as Romero and his wife left the shop.

“You have no idea,” Romero said.

A little practice

Many of Leo Martinez’s customers have been relatives and old friends. In this photo from more than 20 years ago, Martinez gives grandson Fidel Romero a haircut. (Courtesy of Leo Martinez)

Martinez was born in Alamosa, Colorado, and moved with his family to Pojoaque when he was a few years old. After serving in the Navy from 1955 to 1958, he decided to become a barber because a lot of his friends were in that trade.

“It kind of rubbed off on me,” he said.

He had family in Oakland, California, so he went to barber school there. He barbered some in Oakland and for a few years in Española before settling in Albuquerque. He moved to the Altez location about 50 years ago.

A lot of his customers over the years have been relatives and friends from Albuquerque and from other parts of New Mexico.

Leo’s daughter, Marcella Adams, 56, said she has friends and relatives from places such as Santa Fe, Nambé, Pojoaque and Las Cruces that she would have never seen if they had not showed up at her father’s barber shop.

“Even if they did not live here, they came here and got their hair cut when they were in town,” said Leo’s son, Joseph Martinez, 55.

Recently, Leo cut back to half-days at the shop and then finally decided it was time to stop.

“I had been thinking about it for a couple of years because of my health,” he said. “I have back problems from keeping my arms up all day, and my legs were starting to swell. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, because barbering is the only thing I know how to do.”

But he knows who will be cutting his hair.

“I have been cutting my hair since I started barbering,” he said. “I use two mirrors – one in front and one in back. It takes a little practice.”

‘Epitome of cool’

Phillip Romero, second from left in back row, has been getting haircuts from Leo Martinez, second from right, since he was a kid visiting Albuquerque from Peñasco. Romero and his three sons, Phillip II, left, Joseph Romero, right, and Simón Romero, seated in chair, with Martinez on his last day at Gentleman’s Barber Shop. Martinez cut the hair of all the Romero boys. (Courtesy of Phillip Romero)

Phillip Romero, 47, is from Peñasco. He is the son of Horacio Romero, one of Martinez’s childhood friends. Phillip has been getting his hair cut by Martinez since he was a young boy.

“My dad and Leo grew up in Pojoaque, down the same dirt road,” said Phillip, who works in real estate and coaches basketball at Albuquerque Academy. “My dad moved to Peñasco to take a teaching job. Anytime we came (from Peñasco) to Albuquerque for the State Fair or for any reason, I’d get my hair cut here, a haircut the country girls would like. When Leo was done, my dad would point to the broom closet. He taught me to sweep up after the haircut.”

Phillip said his father and some of Martinez’s other old buddies would sometimes get together after hours at Leo’s barbershop.

“They’d maybe have some libations, tell jokes, sing songs,” Phillip said.

Martinez smiled at the memory as he cut Phillip’s hair, maybe for the last time.

“I had a lot of musician friends,” Martinez said. “Sometimes they would bring over a band. We would have a six-pack or a 12-pack and reminisce about the old days.”

“Leo always looked like a million bucks,” Phillip said. “His hair was always perfectly styled. He always wore slacks, dress shoes and a nice dress shirt. From his appearance, it would be hard to determine if he was cutting hair or dressed for a night on the town. He was the epitome of cool.”

Phillip moved to Albuquerque in 1991 and said he has been getting his hair cut by Martinez just about every two or three weeks since then. He choked up in the barber chair as he told how Martinez refused to let him pay for haircuts when he was a college student and later when he was a young husband and father.

“He wouldn’t take money until I had more than a couple of nickels to rub together,” Phillip said. “When my dad was at a rehab center in Albuquerque, Leo would visit him there to cut his hair or to just be a buddy. Leo’s not a big talker, but he is a great listener and a lot of fun to be around. And just about as beautiful a person as you can find.”

Leo finished the haircut. Phillip got the broom from the closet and swept up.

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