The Old Curiosity Barbershop | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Old Curiosity Barbershop 

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By Ted Kleine

I'm an avid collector of Spiro Agnew memorabilia. I have What Makes Spiro Run, the unauthorized biography, and I own a copy of his novel, The Canfield Decision, an international spy thriller starring a heroic vice president. I'm still looking for the jigsaw puzzle depicting Agnew dressed as Superman, and the Hard Hat Hauler, a toy dragster with Agnew's portrait on one hubcap. I'd also love to get a tape of the campaign song from his 1966 run for governor of Maryland. Sung to the tune of "My Kind of Town," it went: "My kind of guy, Ted Agnew is / My kind of guy."

My best find to date is a genuine "Nixon/Agnew" bumper sticker that's now on display in my living room. I bought it from Chicago's king of political kitsch, Russell Riberto, who sells campaign curios out of his Southwest Barber Shop at 2404 W. 111th Street. Sit down for a trim and you face a shelf holding busts of Abe Lincoln, Will Rogers, Pericles, Dante, and Vladimir Lenin. Lean back for a shave and you'll see dozens of old newspapers hanging from the ceiling, including a tattered copy of the Tribune's "Dewey Defeats Truman" edition and the Chicago Evening News's Armistice Day offering: "Huns Quit! Peace!" To the left of the price list, which advertises "House Calls--$20 to $30," is a bulletin board impaled with a century's worth of campaign buttons. There's a George Wallace pin that fades from his photo to his slogan--"Stand Up For America!"--when it's tilted up and down. And there are several declaring "Hey! Hey! Vote for Ray!" left over from when Republican Ray Wardingley, otherwise known as Spanky the Clown, used the shop as his campaign headquarters when he ran for mayor in 1983.

Riberto started dealing in mementos in the mid-1960s after the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and ended the heyday of high-maintenance hairstyles like the crew cut. "I figured to supplement the business," he says. "At that time, the barber business was tapering off. The Beatles had come to town. Long hair was in. Prior to that, people would get haircuts every week."

Politics also gave his place a classier tone than most barbershops, which used to be little stag clubs where the only reading material was Esquire and Playboy and the conversation consisted of football commentary and dirty jokes.

"I'm not a horse bettor or a sports guy," Riberto says. "I don't have any dirty magazines. I like to talk educational. When a kid comes in here, I want to educate him. I have children--I've got eight grandchildren and four children. If I can't educate, forget it!"

A bantam-size 78-year-old, Riberto recently had a hip replaced, ending his days of standing behind a barber's chair. But he's still spry enough to hobble around the shop, holding forth on his collection in a trumpet voice as loud as that of his all-time favorite politician, Franklin D. Roosevelt. "I came from a poor family. That's all I heard around my house. My dad was a foreigner, didn't speak much English, but he said 'Roosevelt my great-a man!'"

Riberto points at a series of photos taken in the Vatican. They show his arm extended like an elephant's trunk over a crowd of pilgrims so he can hand Pope John Paul II a souvenir button of Sadat and Begin's historic visit to Camp David. "Being a world traveler, I've met the pope," he pipes. "Being the pope is a peace lover, I thought he'd appreciate a medallion."

Moving on to a framed copy of a letter from Martin Luther King Jr., Riberto declares, "I've always been a freedom fighter. I've always been an equal justice man, because I know what it is to suffer. When I was growing up, I heard, 'You little dago, you little bomb thrower.' I've always been for human rights. I wish I'd been at Selma." Then in a businessman's aside he adds: "Today, being that Martin Luther King died at a young age, his items are highly collectible."

The most lucrative items in Riberto's shop are his old license plates. People are willing to spend big money for them, especially antique car collectors--"They've already spent $50,000 on a car." When Brian De Palma was filming The Untouchables in Chicago, his crew called Riberto looking for Illinois license plates from the 1920s. Riberto had them, of course: he's got plates from every state, every era, from the Wyoming plates with the silhouette of the bucking cowboy to the Tennessee plates stamped in the shape of the state. He's a member of the Automobile License Plate Collectors' Association, and he considers License Plates of the United States: A Pictorial History "the greatest book ever published."

"I have license plates back from 1900, when you wore 'em on your duster," he says. "You had to wear coveralls, because you picked up so much dirt on them. There were only 300 or 400 cars in Chicago then."

Riberto is currently the steward of Illinois license plate number 82 530. He bought it from a man who lived at 8253 S. Dorchester and got his address on his plates every year, starting in 1926. The entire collection is now on the wall of the shop, except for the latest plate, which is on the back of Riberto's station wagon, right under a sign that proclaims "Wanted: Antiques and Collectibles." He's looking for a successor to buy the lot and carry number 82 530 into the 21st century. "I want to sell it for $5,000," he says. "I'll turn it over to him right now. If it's not worth $25,000 in 20 years, he can come out and urinate on my grave at Holy Sepulchre."

Riberto is also trying hard to peddle a set of photos of every Chicago mayor from William Ogden to Michael Bilandic, which he bought from the old Mayor's Row restaurant. He'll even sell you the picture of his favorite mayor, the one-term reformer Martin Kennelly. "He was in the storage business," Riberto says admiringly, "and he was a dynamic person."

Because of Riberto's pack-rat ways, the Southwest Barber Shop is not only a political museum, it's a museum of men's hairstyling. Next to an old eight-track player stacked with cassettes by Cat Stevens and Helen Reddy are ancient bottles of Clubman greaseless hair tonic and display boards for Leopard Unbreakable Combs. Both items were big back when a man could walk into any barbershop in America and ask for an "Ivy League" or a "high and dry." Spiro Agnew, a dapper man who was lauded by Men's Hairstylist and Barber's Journal for providing "good grooming leadership to the rest of his fellow citizens" and who was famous for his diatribes against longhaired hippies, would have appreciated this old-fashioned, middle-American barbershop devoted to his two obsessions: politics and neat hair. And Riberto probably would have enjoyed having Agnew in the chair for a trim and a chat.

"I'm an educated person," he boasts. "I can hold a conversation with anybody. I may be just a barber, but I can hold a conversation with the president of the United States."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.


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