Santos ‘Tito’ Martinez reflects on the nearly half a century he has clipped and trimmed patron after patron in his downtown Waco shop
Settled quietly along historic Austin Avenue, a small shop is nestled in a tall business building with no fancy decorations besides a painted red and white pole and a name: Tito’s Downtown Barbershop.
Tito’s, located at 900 Austin Ave., has been bringing in business for 46 years with owner Santos “Tito” Martinez, who has over 58 years of hair-cutting experience.
The business draws in both Baylor students and Waco residents, with some clients visiting Tito’s since his barbershop school days.
“It’s been 50-something years,” Martinez said. “I’ve been married 51 years and these guys I was cutting their hair before I even got married, so it’s been a while. I enjoy talking to them — they’re pretty interesting people. They’ve been coming in here for a long time.”
The 79-year-old Waco native began his career as a barber in his early 20s after being laid off from a previous job. A friend convinced him to join barber school because the job paid well.
“We had a barber school here in Waco and I was walking around downtown [to the barber school] and he got me interested,” Martinez said. “After I started going to school I started looking at things and said ‘I’d like to have my own shop, it’s good business.’”
In addition to the history captured by his scissors, the location of Tito’s marks a trip into Waco’s history.
“I worked in a little part of town they used to call the Town Square,” he said. “It was over there on Second and Third Street by the river. I worked there in a big shop with eight barbers and we all had business — everyone would come in.”
Martinez’s haircutting education was cut in half when he was drafted into the military.
Upon his return, Martinez earned his Master’s license in Austin and opened his own shop between Third and Fourth streets on Austin Avenue in 1963.
The demolition on those streets in 1969 caused him to move to the location the business has resided at ever since.
As his business grew, popular hairstyles also caused his business to shift.
Previous generations of men regularly sought haircuts bi-monthly, but with the influence of the hippie movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, longer hair became much more acceptable and in demand, he said.
In order to stay up-to-date with the current styles, Martinez re-enrolled in barber school to review techniques for cutting long hair.
“I went back to take a refresher course in long hair and the guy said, ‘You know the basics of hair cutting, it’s not much different — it’s easier,’” he said.
“I can be really vague with my descriptions for haircuts, but he still understands what I’m trying to get and what would look good on my head shape, without me even knowing that,” Ortiz said.
Martinez said he finds it funny that he’s seen styles repeat during his experience.
“The hair-cutting business moves in a cycle. These kids used to want these haircuts that we hated when we were kids — in the summertime they used to cut it all off and now, they get it all cut off, too.”
With the amount of education and experience Tito possesses, his barber shop also offers a quality haircut at a reasonable price, Dallas junior Collin O’Brien said.
“I support local businesses and I think that Tito’s offers more unique services than chain stores like Super Cuts,” he said. “I like getting a trim [at Tito’s] because sometimes I don’t have the option to go home and it’s not very expensive.”
After an impressive career, Martinez said he may be approaching retirement.
With his lease renewal coinciding with his upcoming 80th birthday, the doors of Tito’s Downtown Barbershop may see the last of its customers soon.
“If Tito retires, it would be a loss because his business is such a part of local culture,” Ortiz said. “You see more Supercuts than barbershops, so for a place to close that has such pride in their work, it would really be a loss.”
Story by: Amanda Yarger | Reporter
Photos by: Jess Schurz | Lariat Photographer