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After 60 years of cutting hair, Eli Sotto retires his clippers

As men prepared to haul away the old barber’s pole, The Trim Shop sign and red barber’s chair they’d selected for safekeeping, Eli Sotto sat watching.

It was a bittersweet moment in an old man’s life, but as Sotto always said, “Nothing is forever.”

And so, come Jan. 31, after nearly six decades of cutting men’s hair, trimming beards and mustaches, telling his story, and having a day in Atlanta declared as Eli Sotto Day, the 90-year-old Sotto will close up shop one final time.

In an economy that has had as many ups and downs as Sotto’s life, he’s been fortunate to have enjoyed such a long run.

Indeed, part of what attracted people to The Trim Shop here on West Peachtree and kept them coming back was the tale of Eli Sotto himself, a Holocaust survivor with a classic American success story first chronicled in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May 2005.

At the time, Sotto was facing eviction from the old Peachtree Medical Building, the place he’d called home since 1953, to make room for progress. Conor McNally of the Novare Group planned more residential construction, and Sotto and the building’s nine other tenants had less than 30 days to move.

“It was bad,” Sotto said at the time.

McNally knew Eli’s story, that he was part of the fabric that made Midtown Midtown. When he stopped by one day, Sotto saw a way out. Could he stay a little longer, just until he could find another location, he asked?

The answer was yes. He could stay until Nov. 30.

Sotto’s story in Atlanta began in 1953, 13 years after the Italians declared war against his native Greece during World War II.

He was 16, one of thousands of Jews ordered to the town square, then put to work building an airfield. Eventually, he was taken to Auschwitz, where his parents and four sisters, including his twin, were sent to their deaths in the gas chamber.

Sotto and his brothers, Charles and Isaac, were all that remained of his family.

After several narrow escapes from the gas chambers, Sotto and other prisoners were liberated by Russian and American soldiers. At one point, they were put on trains in Czechoslovakia when Sotto spotted nuns and Red Cross workers, jumped from the train and, feigning illness, landed in a Catholic hospital in Prague.

Two weeks later, the European phase of World War II ended, and Sotto finally arrived back home in Thessaloniki. His brother Charles had died in a camp. Isaac survived.

Sotto met and married another Holocaust survivor, Lucy Levy, and the couple applied in 1948 to come to the United States, which they did in 1952. They arrived in Atlanta in 1953 with only the barber skills Eli’s father had taught him. He landed his first job at a shop downtown on Georgia Avenue before moving that year to 849 Peachtree St.

Although the building changed hands four times over the years, Sotto remained, growing a clientele that included former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, former Gov. Roy Barnes and television host Bert Parks.

Even as customers lost their hair, they came back.

“I’m practically bald, but I pay Eli to cut my hair every other week just to visit him and see him,” said Brook Sizemore. “He’s the best.”

But when his beloved Lucy died in 1995, some of Eli went with her. Cutting hair was no longer a way to take care of his family. It became Sotto’s life.

Much of what he missed in Lucy, the loyalty especially, he found in customers like Sizemore, Jim Sweezey, a Boston transplant who hadn’t been to another barber in 21 years ago, and Dr. Marcelo Delaserna, a customer turned close friend.

The extension in time that McNally gave Sotto turned into another and another until finally in April 2006, a moving truck backed up to The Trim Shop and transported the furnishings to the Biltmore, another Novare property on West Peachtree.

In 2010, City Councilman Kwanza Hall proclaimed April 27 Eli Sotto Day for his contribution to Midtown.

Even after falling and breaking his femur, after a bout with pneumonia, ailments that sent him to the hospital for long stays, Sotto rallied.

But nothing lasts forever, and Sotto is back to pack up one last time.

“This job standing up, I can’t do it anymore,” he said.

When he learned his lease was up, Sotto decided this time to donate the shop’s contents to the William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum and the Atlanta History Center. Both will preserve Sotto’s story for future generations.

“We focus on collecting Holocaust and Southern Jewish history, and Mr. Sotto touches on all of those,” said Jeremy Katz, archivist for the Breman. “He was a Holocaust survivor who came to Atlanta and made contributions to the community as a barber for 60 years.”

Katz collected Sotto’s sign, business records, immigration and other family papers. Sotto’s barber coat, a City of Atlanta Proclamation, various photos, and the Koken chair — the Rolls Royce of barber chairs — was headed to the history center. The remaining toiletry items, Sotto said, would be donated to local women’s and homeless shelters.

As for Sotto, he plans to spend time with his three children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Maybe play bingo.

“I’m going to take it easy,” he said.

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