By Sonny Morandi (1931-2021)
My first job was just down the street on Johnson Farm, where the Church of the Open Bible is now. My job was picking pansies. If you were a picker or a weeder, you got 10 cents an hour. If you could use a tool, like a hoe, you got 20 cents an hour.
Every kid worked on a farm, and every kid got fired. You’d end up picking something you weren’t supposed to pick, like radishes, and you’d start throwing them at each other. Next thing you knew, we were fired. But we’d just go to another farm and get hired again. I picked apples from the orchard up behind Keans Road — and got fired for throwing them. We had German prisoners of war in town. They were forced into farm work. We threw things at them, of course. Usually rocks.
When I was a teenager, I worked at my uncle’s store on Winn Street. His name was Joe Carbone. The store didn’t have a street address. There weren’t any addresses yet. I sold penny candy, and we set up tables outside, and I’d sell fireworks there.
My father was a barber with his own place in Woburn center. When I got out of Germany during the Korean War, he was on my case about becoming a barber. I had a job driving a bread truck and happened to pass by New England Barber School in Boston. I surprised myself when I signed up.
I went to work with my father for a few years, and I also learned the ropes by visiting the Nike missile sites in the area. I gave haircuts to the guys stationed at the sites. My father’s shop wasn’t really big enough to support two barbers, so I left in 1960 and started my own shop on the corner of Mountain Road and Winn Street, but not the corner where it is now. It was across Mountain Road on the other corner.
I moved in when Tim Santry closed his Calso station to start Winn Street Service across the street. The landlord was Ted Murray, and he reworked the place to be a barber shop. He charged $75 a month. Doesn’t sound like much, but at 50 cents a haircut, it was tough. And I did have some competition from a barber named Ken Frado. But one day, a woman came from the American Legion around two in the morning and smashed right into his shop. She knocked it off the foundation. So much for my competitor.
Then came the Beatles. They put lot of barbers out of business entirely. We had to learn different haircuts. I had to go back to school. You do what you have to do.
I was friendly with a guy named Fred Perkins who lived on the opposite corner of Mountain Road. He approached me and asked if I wanted to buy his house for $19,000. While I was thinking about that, one day he collapsed and died right there on the corner of Mountain Road while he was cutting his lawn. He fell behind the shrubs. I found him and called the police. On the day of the funeral, a real estate agent left a flyer at his front door. Well, his son was so mad that someone had the gall to do that, he came across the street and offered the house to me. I bought the property in 1963 and moved my business into that house.
After a few years, I decided to build an office building there. When I told my wife, she said, “Are you crazy? You can barely keep the roof over your head now.” But I said, “Would you like to eat hamburgers and hotdogs your whole life, or eat lobster once in a while?”
That building project was a very interesting chore to take on. I knew nothing about anything. I quit school in the ninth grade, and I had missed a lot of school from illnesses. The first thing the architect asked me was what kind of building I wanted. He told me to look around Burlington and take pictures. Well, we drove around, but I couldn’t find anything I liked. Finally I looked through a construction magazine and found something.
I never hired a lawyer to represent me at the town boards. I represented myself. I had to sell myself first, and it worked. I could talk a good deal. Nobody knew my educational background, but I could talk. That was my biggest asset. So the Planning Board approved my office building. Their only objection was that it seemed too nice for the area.
Then I started the journey to the different banks. They didn’t want to touch me because I was a barber, not a builder. Whether it was luck or whatever it was, Reading Cooperative Bank finally loaned me $75,000. I laughed all the way home. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together and this guy gives me $75,000. I never had to go back.
I built the building with only subcontractors. I relied on a lot of my customers for expertise. I became a professional brain-picker. It’s amazing how many people are so full of information and want to talk to you. I never did hire a general contractor.
And so I built my pride and joy at 1 Mountain Road. People told me I was crazy for putting that tunnel in the building because I wasted potential office space. But I wanted Winnmere to have a little bit of class. When I grew up, Winnmere was like coming from a different world. It was considered the armpit of Burlington. You didn’t even drink the water there. I wanted this building to have a positive effect on the whole neighborhood, and it did. Other businesses started making improvements.
It’s unique. It’s different from every other building in Burlington. And it’s a landmark. People refer to it when they’re giving directions. “When you see the stone building, take a right.”
I had it in my hands to do something nice for the Winnmere section, and I did. That’s my contribution. I’ve been offered more land to build buildings after I built mine, offered so many deals. I can’t do it. I like my barbering too much. I like my customers.
Sometimes they’re a little crazy. One Saturday afternoon around closing time, a young guy came in, agitated. He was at another barber shop and asked for a flat top but got a crewcut instead, so he basically had no hair. He was supposed to get married the next day. He pointed to his head and asked us, “Can’t you guys straighten this out?”