Benito’s gets a makeover

Jason Gruner and Tracy Briscoe, the new owners of Benito's, describe the newly renovated shop as "1940s retro meets New York City metro." — Photo by Ralph Stewart

New life has been sprouting all over Circuit Avenue this spring. As new businesses like Beetlebung are putting down roots, long-established enterprises like the Lampost are making a statement with head-turning renovations.

New ownership has also breathed new life into one of the best-known businesses on the block — Benito’s Hair Styling, a Circuit Ave. institution that until last year was owned and operated by Benito Mancinone. Known to locals as Benny, Mr. Mancinone operated the business for 22 years.

Last summer, Tracy Briscoe and her brother, Jason Gruner, took ownership of the shop. Per Benny’s wishes, they kept the barber shop spirit intact.

“We call it 1940s retro meets New York City metro,” Ms. Briscoe said, while she worked on a client. “I wanted to bring the old school back. Having the hot lather neck shave and massage and a hot towel, that’s how they used to do it. It takes a little more time, but that’s how I like to do it.”

Ms. Briscoe started working summers at Benito’s in 1993, two years after Mr. Mancinone opened his doors, and she returned almost every summer, and a few winters as well. She also has worked in high-end salons in New York City, Naples, Florida, and Portland, Oregon.

Family affair

Fittingly, the change of ownership at Benito’s all started with a haircut. I was getting my haircut in November 2012 and Benny says I’ll tell you something, don’t tell anyone: I’m going to retire,” Mr. Gruner, an entrepreneur who splits his time between Naples, Fla., and Chappaquiddick, recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t want this to become a gift shop or an ice cream store. Think your sister would be interested in taking over?’”

“Benny knew Tracy is very good at what she does and she’s very personable,” Mr. Gruner said. “He knew if she took it over it wasn’t going to be a gift shop,”

“I knew for a long time she was going to take it over,” Mr. Mancinone said in his thick Italian accent, on a telephone interview with the Times from his new home in Clinton, Connecticut. “She worked with me a long time. I couldn’t get rid of her, she’s like a tick,” he joked.

“He was Papa Benito,” Ms. Briscoe said fondly.  “He never called me Tracy. It was either ‘that girl’ or ‘Fifi.’”

A new look

On July 1, 2013, Ms. Briscoe and Mr. Gruner took ownership of Benito’s. In late February of this year, Mr. Gruner and his 18-year-old son, Jason Jr., gutted it and along with Ms. Briscoe, gave Benito’s an entirely new look.

The DNA hasn’t changed. The hardwood floors and black and white tiled walls harken back to a previous era. There are posters of Vargas girls, framed Boston Globe front pages from all the Patriots Super Bowl wins, and a pen and ink sketch portrait of Benny, peering down over his bifocals, overseeing the proceedings.

The walls in the front of the shop are papered with thousands of old baseball and football cards, which Mr. Gruner and his son applied by hand. A quick look shows the cards of Roger Clemens, Tony Gwynn, and Jim Plunkett, all barely old enough to shave. “A guy told me there’s at least a thousand dollars worth of cards up there,” Mr. Gruner said. “Only Tracy knows how many there are. I lost count.”

Ms. Briscoe said the first person to guess the number of cards will win three free haircuts. “So far, no one has been close,” she said.

While the vibe is traditional, the amenities in the new Benitos are 21st century. Gone is the limited selection of outdated magazines. Now, a magazine rack overflows with current publications geared for a distinctly male clientele. There are flat screen TVs playing ESPN, and a popcorn machine adds a pleasant aroma.

The old Benito’s had “unisex” on the window, but the waiting room was usually all male, sometimes ten deep — men waiting for a cut or boys waiting for their first wiffle of the summer.  Ms. Briscoe is intent on expanding the female clientele, in particular, wedding parties. “I’ve done hundreds of weddings,” she said, referring to her 10 years managing the Naples Beach Club. Ms. Briscoe says she has plans to open a new business will cater solely to the booming bridal business on Martha’s Vineyard. For now, she’s got a steady stream of customers at the new Benito’s, where, unlike the old Benito’s, you can make an appointment. “His clients who used to say ‘no’ to me come to me now,” Ms. Briscoe said.

Benny lives on

Although Benny is gone, his imprint is everywhere in the new shop. His original barber chair sits in the front window, along with some of his tools of the trade. The original barber poll still spins outside and the old sign still hangs in the window.  A 1954 clock from his Springfield shop with inverted numbering — so clients can read it in the mirror — hangs on the wall.

And Mr. Mancinone still keeps tabs on the place. “He calls every Saturday to make an appointment with himself,” Ms. Briscoe said, shaking her head with a smile as she deftly shaved a client with a straight edge razor.

“I  hate to say goodbye when I leave,” Mr. Mancione said about his departure from the Vineyard. “I have no regrets. I can’t say enough about the place and the time I had there.”

Although Mr. Mancinone says he doesn’t like to look back, he quickly shares some fond memories of fishing with his friend Ed Jerome. “I used to fish from five to seven, then get a shower and go to work. I caught some nice fish, 34-pound stripers, but 11 years fishing the Derby, I never got a bite, not even a bite. My wife wanted to know if I was fishing or not.”

Today Mr. Mancinone plays raquetball, keeps abreast of world soccer, especially his team, Inter Milan, and he goes fishing. “I’d like to cut hair a few days, but I don’t have a license in Connecticut and it takes like three months to get it.”