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In Pennsylvania, a haircut to remember

By Luke Jerod Kummer
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 11:59 AM

Time after time at hair salons in Washington, my requests for a pompadour have produced only puzzlement followed by a standard trim.

"You know, like Elvis?" I'd plead to no avail.

And so a curled-lip sneer grew into delight when I learned of John's Old School New Skool Barber Shop in Schwenksville, Pa., whose Web site flaunts "greaser cuts and rockabilly styles including but not limited to pomps, psychobilly flattops, Peter Gunn, D.A.'s etc." What's more, in the vein of beautifully random roadside America, the barbershop is also home to the Schwenksville Museum of Nostalgia, a name both curious and comforting.

That's all it took to pack up my hair and my warm memories for an outing there a few weeks ago.

Perched among the gently rolling hills west of Philadelphia, tiny Schwenksville (population 2,000) was once an important stop on the passenger railways that linked up the Delaware Valley. Today, the town is perhaps better known as the neighbor to Spring Mountain's ski area.

Two-and-a-half hours after leaving the Beltway, my car glides down the tree-lined Main Street that retains a couple of Victorian homes but not much commerce. I easily spot a barber's pole on the sparse street.

Inside the shop, burly men tattooed like South Seas mariners hover over old-time hydraulic chairs filled with customers. An RCA Victor console radio blares punk rock.

The room redefines clutter. A dozen life-size painted busts of Elvis stare back at me amid shelves lined with hundreds of shaving mugs, "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" lunch boxes, armies of tin windup toys and rusting cans of Quaker State motor oil. The walls are a collage of 1950s cigarette ads, scantily clad ladies of yesteryear, photos of Schwenksville's golden days and posters for "H.R. Pufnstuf," the psychedelic TV puppet show from the 1970s, signed by its creators, Sid and Marty Krofft. A phone booth is labeled "time machine." Indeed, I feel like I've entered another dimension.

Before I utter a word, a heavy-browed gent wearing a fedora of braided sisal and a Mexican wedding shirt matted with hair clippings says, "Beer's in the fridge." He doesn't even glance up from cutting an "Oliver North" (as advertised on the wall). I find the chrome-and-red General Electric and remove a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon that is gratis for customers.

After waiting 20 minutes, I inquire about a local spot to grab lunch. John Scioli, the big fellow who owns the joint, reaches into a plastic sack and retrieves a pulled pork sandwich. It occurs to me that the shop's generous business model may not keep it in the black, but as a customer, I am enjoying the full-service approach.

Scioli, a floorsweep, another barber and a man on the sofa called Buddy Lite are carrying on a conversation that bounces around like a Wham-O Super Ball, touching on conspiracy theories, 20th-century pop culture, UFOs, lewd raillery and an eerie tale concerning a caribou walking backward via supernatural forces.

When I mention the museum, Scioli leads me to the back door of a bathroom bedecked in pinup girls. The entire building, dating from the 1800s, was once the Beltz Cigar Factory, and the passageway opens to a former tobacco drying room the size of a large pantry. Last year, Scioli began curating his most prized items here.

Figurines of Oscar Goldman (Steve Austin's sartorially bold boss in "The Six Million Dollar Man") and Jay J. Armes (the real-life detective with prosthetic hands who rescued Marlon Brando's son from kidnappers) share the packed exhibit space with an Archie-Bunker-for-President coffee mug, Texaco toy trucks, a "Planet of the Apes" treehouse set and a promotional "vomit bag" for the 1970 grindhouse cinema release "Mark of the Devil." I soon find myself chatting about toys I owned as a kid and realize I have fallen into the weird vacuum of nostalgia Scioli so carefully designed.

After the tour, I follow Scioli and my curiosity outside for a cigarette break. I notice among his thuggish tattoos the word "erudite" inked across his knuckles. The 38-year-old with the voice of a carnival barker and an encyclopedic memory explains he was a member of Mensa "until I went to a meeting and dropped out."

"I got involved in some bad stuff for a while," he continues, recounting how he was raised in a rough section of Philadelphia, struggled with addiction and got caught in gun crossfire, ending up hit in the head by a bullet. When his wife brought him to the area a decade ago, he cleaned up and grew serious about barbering, a craft he has practiced intermittently since his teens. (If you have lots of time, ask him about the evolution of men's haircuts.) As for his collection, he says, "When I was in high school, I was a nerd with Tourette syndrome, and I didn't have a single friend. This was my escape."

When it's finally my time, I climb onto the barber's chair, an ashtray built into the armrest. I ask for a pompadour, to which Scioli, like a Michelangelo with a shaggy block of marble, simply nods and commences work on my hair with shears and Oster clippers. Using a straight razor, he shaves around my ears and cleans the nape of my neck. He smooths wax and pomade into my chopped mane until it rises and crests like a petrified tidal wave.

When I face the mirror to admire my new pompadour, I notice an aerial bomb on the floor bearing the logo of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department Bomb Unit. Scioli explains that they're regulars.

Buddy Lite - the barbershop barfly who's still lounging in his porkpie hat and violating the rule posted on a sign stating "No jibber jabber" - pauses the persiflage to become sentimental.

"You see, what John doesn't tell you is that all this is the sideshow," he says. "The real museum here is the people."

Impeccably coiffed, fed, tipsy and drunk on nostalgia, I am just another satisfied customer.

Kummer is a freelance writer in Washington.

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