Pleasanton barbershop owner Cosmo Panetta is celebrating more than 40 years in the business of making men, women, and children look and feel good with his clippers and kindness.
"The main thing is when a customer walks through the door, you have to smile at them and make them feel comfortable," Panetta, 70, said during an interview this month. "Put them in the chair and start talking to them about anything, make sure when they walk out of the door they say, 'Man, I feel great.' Customer service is No. 1."
When Panetta first opened his Cosmo's Barber Shop on Pleasanton's Main Street in May 1972, people could ride a horse downtown to his shop's hitching post, get a shoe shine for 50 cents and a hot towel shave and haircut for just a couple of dollars more.
Although much has changed over the last four-plus decades, including the shop's location, Cosmo's has sustained its place as a staple in the Pleasanton community. Panetta has been able to keep haircut prices for men at $10 and keep the shop operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Currently located on First Street in Pleasant Plaza -- the city's first strip shopping center -- Cosmo's is adorned with sports memorabilia, televisions along the walls, and several vintage barber chairs providing a quaint and classic atmosphere for its patrons.
A customer may only spend about 20 minutes there, but Panetta said he makes sure that any amount of time spent in his shop is pleasant by sharing samples of his homemade Port wine to those 21 and older and by engaging in some friendly conversation with a smile.
"Cosmo is like my second dad," said Alan Shafto who has been getting haircuts from Panetta for 34 years, since he was a child. "This is the No. 1 place in town for a haircut. My sister brings her son here, my dad comes here; we all love Cosmo's."
In the nearly four decades that Shafto has been going to Cosmo's, he said he only recalled one time he was displeased. Before his high school senior ball, Shafto described to Panetta the hairdo he wanted, but Panetta made a mistake and cut his hair into a "buzz cut."
The two men now laugh about the mix-up, and Shafto said even if he moved away from Pleasanton, he would return for his haircuts from Panetta.
Pleasanton natives and other Tri-Valley residents make up the majority of the clientele at Cosmo's, but Panetta said he also has several customers from the 1960s, when he worked in San Lorenzo, who live in other parts of the Bay Area but continue to make their way to Pleasanton for a haircut.
"We've been coming to Cosmo's for at least 15 years now," Livermore resident Lindsay Sena said. "I love that the barbers here know how to fade because I have three boys. Pretty much everyone knows about Cosmo's, even my friends in Livermore say, 'Yup, Cosmo's is the best.' And they're so fast."
The downtown Pleasanton location is now Panetta's only shop, but about eight years ago he opened another one in Livermore. He was running two successful barbershops for about three years until one of his employees made an offer to buy the Livermore shop, and Panetta decided to sell.
Overall, Panetta likes being able to put his focus into one shop. "The best place to work is right here in Pleasanton," he said.
Panetta arrived in the Bay Area as a youngster, immigrating with his family to the U.S. from Calabria, Italy, in 1957. From their Ellis Island docking, the family traveled to Richmond and then on to San Leandro where relatives already lived. At 19, Panetta graduated from Pacific High, which has since been absorbed into San Leandro High School.
Around 21 years old, Panetta said a friend got him interested in barbering, so he attended Moler Barber College in Oakland and obtained his state license. While attending barber school, Panetta said there was a back room where students would provide free haircuts for extra practice.
For Panetta, the first cut and shave he gave in the free room is still etched in his memory.
That first customer died while in the barber chair, unbeknown to Panetta, who said he thought the man had simply fallen asleep.
"When I finished and put the chair up, I said, 'Sir, you're done' and he wouldn't move," Panetta recalled. "I repeated it, and he still wouldn't move. I went to get my instructor who tried to shake him to wake him up, and he still wouldn't move."
Panetta said he was "stunned" when he realized what had happened, and he decided to take a few days off from school to process the shock of what took place.
He would return to barber school, and upon completing his studies, Panetta worked in several shops before buying and renaming the Krause barber shop that was next to Pastime Pool on Main Street. He later moved Cosmo's to its current location at 4275 First St.
"When I first started in Pleasanton, there was no business at all," Panetta said. "I remember one day right after I bought the shop, I worked from 8 o'clock in the morning to 8 o'clock at night and I made only $12."
Panetta struggled throughout his first year of ownership, but he said he eventually built it up along with his clientele and hired a few employees.
He said there was only one time he worried about the future of Cosmo's: when the Supercuts chain began opening salons nearby. Panetta said he is "thankful" he's been able to keep his shop running despite newer shops and salons arriving around town.
Primarily female barbers occupy stations at Cosmo's, which Panetta said is due in part to their ability to cut and style long hair.
"When The Beatles came in and the long hair came in, a lot of barbershops went out of business but I started hiring women because they're good with long hair. Male barbers weren't that good with long hair," he added.
Several of Panetta's employees have worked for him for more than a decade. One of his stylists, Maria Baccaro, has worked there for most of her life. She jokes with Panetta that she started when she was 6, but really it was more like 15.
"When I started the shop was half the size it is now. It was just a little strip and there were about five or six of us working and we've just expanded," Baccaro said. "I love it; we're always busy working. I love the environment, it's casual and comfortable, and we make a lot of friends."
The customers are the key to their success, according to Baccaro, adding that at Cosmo's they strive to show their gratitude for the clients. Sometimes, it's the customers who facilitate services at the shop.
In one situation, a customer who was sitting next to a military member during a visit to Cosmo's offered to pay for the soldier's haircut, then he donated $100 -- on the condition that Panetta matched his donation -- to provide free haircuts for the next 20 soldiers who entered the shop.
Another memorable moment at Cosmo's, and one of the most alarming, occurred in 2011, when a customer's vehicle crashed through the barbershop building, Panetta recalled. The customer's car was parked directly in front of Cosmo's, and as he was leaving, he selected the wrong gear and drove through the glass doors leading into the shop.
No one was injured as a result of that incident, as it happened late in the afternoon after the morning rush subsided, Panetta said.
"I happened to be watching the Steelers' game, so I moved from my chair to the back so I could be closer to the TV," Panetta said. "The girl who sits in the first chair usually never leaves her chair, but at that moment she was next door getting a Coke."
"The car flew in and took out the first three stations," he added. "Luckily nobody was sitting in the waiting chairs, I wasn't at my station, my employee wasn't at her station, and nobody got hurt."
Panetta said the driver was so embarrassed that he stopped coming to the shop for his haircuts. But the barber said he eventually called the man and asked that he come back to the shop, telling him not to be ashamed. The man still to this day comes to Cosmo's for haircuts, Panetta added.
Although Panetta enjoys cutting hair, he said it's his customers that really make his profession worthwhile. "I love getting up and coming to work everyday; it's a family shop." he said. "When you treat the people good, they treat you good."
Panetta and his wife raised their two children in San Ramon. His son and daughter are now grown and preparing for children of their own.
"I'm going to be a grandfather for the first time. My daughter is having a baby coming up in August and then my daughter-in-law is going to have twins, so I'm very excited," he said.
His daughter, Sofia, works at the shop with him, and Panetta said he plans for her to eventually take over the business -- but he doesn't plan for that to happen anytime soon.
"Cosmo's is going to go on for a long time," he said. "I've been here for 40 years, and I'm going to be here for another 40 years."