History of La Flamme

Reporter's Notebook

Maybe it's the old-style red, white and blue pole adorning the entrance to the La Flamme Barber Shop.

Or maybe it's the fast service and friendly barbers that keep customers coming back to this Harvard "institution."

While those attributes give this little business on Dunster Street a nostalgic and comfortable feel, owner George Papalimberis says the key to his success is much more simple:

"This is the most popular shop for the students because we give the best haircuts for the lowest price--$10."

Opened in 1898 by Arthur La Flamme, a French-Canadian immigrant and the store's namesake, the barber shop has been going strong for the past 99 years.

Papalimberis has owned the store for the past 13 years, but his experience with haircuts has deeper roots.

"I learned to cut hair back in Greece," says Papalimberis, who came to the United States over 30 years ago. "Like any immigrant, I came here looking for a better life and more opportunities."

When he first arrived in the Boston area, Papalimberis opened a barber shop in Central Square. He later moved his shop to 49 Brattle St.--that store, Custom Barber Shop, still exists and is owned by Papalimberis.

"I knew that I would succeed with La Flamme because I had experience with my other store on Brattle," says Papalimberis. "I built that store up from one chair to four.

"I like my job because at 6 p.m., I can lock up the store and go home to my three children."

Papalimberis says he is confident that his son Louis, 26, will help keep La Flamme a family business.

"He already works in the store cutting hair," says Papalimberis. "He's decided that this is what he wants to do."

A Winchester resident, Papalimberis works at the shop from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday through Saturday, helping with the constant flow of customers.

With eight chairs in the store and eight barbers working every day, Papalimberis couldn't hide his success, even if he wanted to.

"Customers are sometimes lined up and waiting at the door when I get here in the morning," he says.

He attributes his store's popularity to three factors.

"Reliability, good service and low prices," says Papalimberis. "If you have these, you will succeed in any business."

"Customer service is also very important to us," he adds. "All of my employees are trained my way, and I teach them to treat the customers well."

Papalimberis says that he is also able to provide his customers with their favorite barbers.

"Our store has a friendly atmosphere," says Papalimberis, who has had some barbers working with him for over eight years. "The barbers are all good friends."

La Flamme's commitment to service and low prices has attracted some well-known regulars.

"Michael Dukakis has been my customer for the past 19 years. He has followed me to every store that I have owned," says Papalimberis, who has framed photographs of Dukakis in a barber chair to back up his claim.

Papalimberis was even invited to the 1992 Inaugural Ball even though he has never laid hands on the president's locks.

"When he was elected, Clinton took with him to Washington many of the administrators at the Kennedy School who were some of my best customers," says Papalimberis, who chose not to attend because he had already finalized his vacation plans.

"Inviting me to the inauguration was the least they could do," he says.

Papalimberis counts among his customers countless Harvard students, Cambridge residents and "too many Harvard professors to count."

"I've cut the hair of Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, and of Harvard officials like the Provost Al Carnesale," says Papalimberis. "I knew that he was leaving Harvard for UCLA before anyone else."

But he is just as happy cutting hair that is not so famous.

"The students are especially interesting," he says. "You see the little guys come in as freshmen. Four years later they come back right before commencement and they're ready to face the world."