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CP Lino Lareas at his Lincoln Boulevard barber shop on Wednesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PICO BLVD — The words “barber shop” may call to mind any number of images. Some picture men in striped jackets singing a-cappella at a county fair; others may recall images from macabre musical theatre, of straight razors dripping with blood.

For Lino Lares, the words “barber shop” have a slightly different meaning. To this owner of Pico Barber Shop, the words summarize many years of work and reward, and promise many more in the future.

Though Lares is the first barber in his family, his choice to go into barbering was still a tribute to a family tradition. As a child, he spent many afternoons at the barber shop with his grandfather; his fond memories of those experiences were key in his eventual decision to become a barber, and he still considers the profession a link between him and his grandfather.

“It keeps me closer to him,” Lares explained.

In tribute to his grandfather, and to the “barber shop culture” that fascinated him as a child, Lares is doing his best to preserve the “traditional American barber shop” mentality in his own shops — from the straight-razor shave to the old-fashioned barber’s chairs.

Lares belongs to a family of Santa Monica natives: his grandfather moved to the city in 1922; three generations of his family have since been born and raised here. He was educated at Santa Monica’s public schools, from Edison Elementary to Santa Monica and Olympic High Schools, and met his wife, Laura, at John Adams Middle School at the age of 14. Though Lares’s family moved briefly to the San Fernando Valley, he returned to Santa Monica to build his career as a barber and raise his sons.

“This is my home,” he explained as his reason for returning.

Lares spent his first five years in Santa Monica at Lincoln Barber Shop, trained by neighborhood barbering legend, Chino Recendez. Recendez suggested that perhaps it was time for Lares to take the next step in his career, and open his own barber shop.

Following Recendez’s advice, Lares and his partner Daniel Gonzalez, another employee at Lincoln Barber Shop, scraped together $4,000 to carry them through the earliest expenses and opened Pico Barber Shop in 2002.

The day the first Pico Barber Shop opened, Lares remembers, “I was thinking, ‘man, what am I doing?’ Daniel and I went out on a limb … We still weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up.”

Show up they did, however. Pico Barber Shop experienced almost immediate success, and Lares and Gonzalez soon opened up their second shop (called Pico Barber Shop #2). According to Lares, both shops have become important in their neighborhoods, and “play a big role in the community,” serving as a place for people to come together.

“We’re one of the most diverse shops around,” Lares said. “We get everything from gangsters to cops to firemen. We get a lot of people from City Hall. Even homeless people come in, and we don’t charge them. We’ve got Iranian customers, Mexican, white, black … Everybody belongs in a barber shop.”

The diverse clientele at Pico Barbers is, according to Lares, one of the unsung perks of the job, exposing him to new ideas and allowing him to broaden his worldview.

“I haven’t traveled a lot,” Lares explained, “but my customers from Dubai can tell me all about Dubai, and it’s like I’ve been there. I’ve never surfed before, but I can carry a heck of a conversation about surfing because I have a lot of surfer customers. I could make you believe that I’ve surfed all my life. Without even leaving my little station, I can learn a lot, and visualize a lot of places I’ve never been and things I’ve never experienced.”

Lares says he does his best to make Pico Barber Shop “homey” — not surprising, as he spends enough time in the shop to consider it a second home. Pico Barber Shop is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday; during those hours, Lares can almost always be found somewhere in the shop — usually standing behind a chair, cutting hair and chatting with customers.

One of the few exceptions to this standard are the nights when one of Lares’s sons has a baseball game. All three of his sons — Lino, Jr., 14, Luis, 10, and Diego, 9 — are avid baseball players. Lares has spent several years coaching in the Santa Monica Pony League, for which his two youngest sons play, and often leaves work early during the week to attend their games.

“I try to go to every game,” Lares said. “I can’t always make it, especially on Saturdays … because I have to be loyal to my customers here, but I’ll always do my best to go.”

Lares endeavors to contribute to the community that has adopted him, and Pico Baber Shop, as one of its own. He regularly opens up the shop to teenagers looking for a place to go before or after school, and does his best to make everyone feel welcome by offering accommodations like a senior discount. This Christmas, Pico Barber Shop reached out even further, hosting a holiday toy drive to support homeless service provider OPCC.

“It’s always been in me to help out. Ever since my first son was born, I’ve wanted to show him some of the values my mom showed me about caring for people. This year, I would hear a lot of complaints from customers about how they didn’t have money this Christmas … At the back of my mind, I thought, ‘what about all the people who don’t have a roof or anything to eat?’ So I talked to my barbers about it, and we decided we should do a toy drive.”

The toy drive, held on Dec. 20, 2009 became a rallying point for the community. Barbers donated their time, giving free haircuts to anyone who donated a gift. Three local car clubs organized an impromptu car show along Lincoln Boulevard, contributing a gift for every car they brought. The cars were cleared out just in time to make room for a handful of motorcyclists, who showed up unannounced with toys strapped onto the backs of their Harley-Davidsons.

“You had these big guys with tattoos and bandanas getting off their bikes with Barbie dolls,” Lares said, laughing as he described the image. “It was very cool.”

After the toy drive, Pico Barbers was able to donate over 200 gifts to OPCC, which houses over 100 homeless children.

Lares believes that the toy drive “sparked something” in many within the community, and hopes to continue such charitable activities in the future.

“We’re definitely going to do it next year, and we’re going to make it a yearly thing,” Lares said. “But I really don’t want to wait for Christmas. People need things every day. When I can, I would like to donate or volunteer time and show my kids that we really need to care about other people.”

Lares is currently in the process of establishing a third Pico Barber Shop, this one in the Venice area. His eventual goal is to have a chain of shops, which he hopes will serve as a springboard for young barbers to gain experience and get their careers off to a strong start.

“I don’t hire barbers that are seasoned. I like getting them from school because they come with no bad habits, and they’re willing to learn,” Lares said. “I think I learned from the best, and I like to think that I’m one of the better barbers out here, so I’d like to train them to cut hair well.”

It may be impossible to predict what the future may bring for Pico Barber Shop, but one can be certain that Lares will remain behind the barber’s chair, razor in hand, ready to greet whatever lies in store.

“It takes a lot, but I love it,” Lares said. “To this day, I’ve never woken up and said, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’ Not once.”