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In Pennsylvania, a haircut to remember

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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.

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"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.


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