ELLSWORTH — Jack Forni, the former owner of Jack’s Barber Shop on Water Street, may not know all of his customers by name, but he knows them by clipper number.
“You know their face and their haircut,” Forni said. “‘Oh, he gets a No. 2’.”
On a recent mild afternoon in early April, while his bichon frisé Annie napped at his feet, Forni settled into the green leather barber’s chair for a trim. The 77-year-old Ellsworth native was on the other side of the shears after having recently passed them on to longtime friend Elle Somes.
Forni, who has been struggling with colon cancer, may have decided to step back to spend time with his family and hobbies, but the barber’s chair is never far from his mind.
“Do I miss it?” he mused. “Big time. I get depressed thinking about it. I miss the customers and talking to people.”
For the past eight years, the avid Red Sox fan, who has trimmed the locks of generations of local families, has been deploying his scissors at a nondescript white building on Water Street. The one-room shop smells of aftershave, and with its glowing neon sign, helical blue-and-red striped barber’s pole and white linoleum floors, feels as though it’s been spirited out of the 1950s.
“Ellsworth is going to miss an old-fashioned barbershop like that,” said City Council Chairman Marc Blanchette, a longtime friend and customer of Forni’s. “And a lot of people are going to miss him. I think a lot of people went in there just to shoot the breeze. Yeah, they needed a haircut, but it could have waited.
“He is old school,” Blanchette said. “If one of his customers went into a nursing home Jack would think nothing of grabbing a pair of clippers and an apron and going up there.”
Jack also made house calls.
“I know for a fact,” Blanchette said, “that sometimes when he got to their house he could see they didn’t have two dimes to rub together and he wouldn’t charge them.”
Forni, who has been in the business of barbering since he was a teenager, attended barber school in Lewiston. He estimates his roster at “400 or 500” customers, including entire high school sports teams, Noel Paul Stookey of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary and clients from as far away as Eastbrook and Deer Isle. The barber’s chair, Somes said, can cut across socioeconomic lines.
“Haircuts can break down barriers,” she added.
“We pride ourselves on how we can talk to lawyers and talk to worms diggers on the same day,” he said.
Lorie Jordan, Forni’s partner in business and in life, said the range of clientele spiced up the days.
“No day was ever boring; every day was something different,” Jordan said. “If you needed information, you’d wait for the plumber, the doctor, whoever” to show up for a haircut.
The couple had wills drawn up by a customer who was a lawyer. Jordan recalled the day a local physician came in for a cut and diagnosed Forni with the flu.
“Jack told him he owed $8 and he said ‘Maybe I should charge you!’”
The room was also a repository for secrets, Jordan said.
“We knew some things. We know things their wives don’t know.”
Forni’s schedule — 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week — left little time for hobbies, but the couple made the most of their time off.
“We worked hard and we played hard,” Jordan said. The two spent weekends boating and playing tennis, and traveled extensively, visiting the Great Wall of China, the mountains of Peru and the geysers of Iceland.
Asked what he enjoyed about China, Forni quipped: “I liked the good parts and the bad parts.”
That kind of lighthearted response is typical, said Jennah Dalton, a hospice aid who makes daily visits to Forni’s home to clean house and administer his medications.
“He is just a great guy, he is a hoot. I make sure he’s my first stop in the morning because I need his energy to get me going. He’s mister jokester. He’s never in a bad mood.”
Forni said he plans to spend the next few months with family and friends on simple pleasures.
“I’m still here; I would love to go on a whale watch out of Bar Harbor,” Forni said. “It’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done. Just to see the whales — you can almost touch them.”
“My other favorite thing I did already,” Forni said. “I was up to Skowhegan for Maple Sugar Sunday with my son and my two granddaughters. That was the time of my life. I had ice cream with maple sugar on top.”
Somes, who worked taking pictures for Forni when he was a part-time insurance inspector, said there will be a few changes to the shop under her ownership.
“I’ve changed the hours — I can’t do 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.!” The name will change, to Elle’s Barbershop, but Somes said she’ll keep the barber’s chair and much of the interior the same.
“This chair has been a staple in this barbershop, and Jack was a staple in the community,” Somes said. “Wherever there was a need if he could help out he did it.”
Somes said she is planning to raise money to send Forni to a Red Sox game at Fenway in May. For more information on how to be involved, call or text Elle Somes at 219-9688.