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Rome blade sharpener lives on the edge

Once a fixture in Rome, the arrotini are vanishing. Sergio Zoppo says young people aren't interested in learning the craft: 'You don't earn a lot of money doing this.' But he's not ready to give it up.

April 27, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

ROME — The stocking repairman is long dead, the hat seller is gone too, but down Via Merulana the sparks still fly around Sergio Zoppo, his hands, the color of ore, skimming knife blades across grindstones.

The steel heats and hums, a kind of music in the late morning air, coiling through the roar of buses, the whine of motorini. He looks up, glasses dangling on a string around his neck, his blue smock smeared with minerals and grime. He smiles, this man with stories and cut fingers, smiles at the time when he was a boy, darting through alleys with razors and scissors, when Rome's neighborhoods rang with the call:

"Ladies, the arrotino has arrived."

The arrotino was not a Romeo. Well, this is Italy, so maybe sometimes he was a secret lover. But mostly he was a man who sharpened knives. Back then he came riding a bicycle rigged with a grindstone powered by chain and pedal and cooled by a tin can dripping water.

They are disappearing, these craftsmen, characters of another era. It makes a gray-haired mender of butter knives, swords and daggers wonder what happened to those things he was once so sure of.

"We are scarcer in the neighborhoods. We are really becoming extinct," Zoppo says. "Some guys call themselves arrotini, but they are not. They drive around in cars with loudspeakers on the roofs. They're gypsies. The world is not the same. We all used to know one another. But, today, I know the guy on the right side of my shop, but not the one on my left. People aren't interested in human contact anymore. We're all strangers."

Zoppo can conjure up Sant'Elena Sannita, that southern Italian town his grandfather struck out from in 1881 to open an arrotino shop in Rome. His father, Nicola, carried on the trade, and when Zoppo was still a boy, in those days when World War II was over but the ruins of it remained, he quit school and learned the family business, watching his cousin pedal out, racing toward butchers, balconies and housewives.

"There was a lot of work back then," he says. "The country was restarting and people were trying to find their place again."

For decades, the big business was sharpening straight razors for barbers. The arrotini expanded into soap and shaving cream, and eventually many of the fortune seekers from Sant'Elena Sannita slipped into the perfume market, which made more money than knife sharpening. Rome's streets filled with strange and alluring fragrances: talcum, tonic and lavender. There's a book about these men, "The Perfume Sellers of Sant'Elena."

Zoppo turns the pages.

A woman walks in looking for a replica sword from the time of Jesus.


A guy plunks a bag of dull knives on the counter.

The arrotino doesn't do much sharpening these days. Blame it on stainless steel, which needs less buffing and honing; blame it on AIDS, which forced barbers to use disposable razors; blame it on a too busy society, which has lost allegiance to the meticulous nature of the craftsman; or blame it on the young, who are looking for the big paycheck, not the intricacies and low wages of a dying trade.

"Sometimes a young man will come by and want to be an arrotino, but he'll last a week," Zoppo says. "You don't earn a lot of money doing this. You survive. My stepson's a plumber. I'm trying to get him into my craft, but he's not interested. I was born in 1935 and I'm still working. . . . I was supposed to retire, but my pension was only [$615] a month, and what was I going to do anyway? Sit in the park and read the newspaper? I don't play boccie ball."

His father couldn't give it up, either.

"His hands were shaking, and I said, 'Dad, you've got to stop working.' He looked at me: 'What will I do if I stop?' He was 87. And until he died at 95, he came to the shop every day and sat out front in his chair."

Zoppo is a man of boxes. He pulls one from a shelf. It's full of straight razors, glinting like little fish. One is from 1710. A few are emblazoned with swastikas, left by Italian Fascists and German soldiers; others are stamped with the name Zoppo, trinkets of history that say a man and his family were here. When he dies, the box will probably go to collectors and the shop will be turned into something else, maybe a cellphone store; that's what happened to the stocking repairman.

The clock on Zoppo's wall has stopped at 10:52. His cousin's bicycle is beneath it. Zoppo loops the chain, pushes the pedals; the grindstone spins. He smiles; he is a man of smiles and droopy eyes, with an unruly goatee in need of a sharp blade. He steps into the back room, flicking a switch, holding a tarnished knife to a motorized grindstone that kicks up a tiny breeze.

Back and forth, back and forth, switching sides, back and forth, the knife begins to shine, bright silver in the dim morning light.


Fleishman was recently on assignment in Rome.

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