The white sign stating “Haircuts- $8.00” on PA Rt 61 heading north into Schuylkill County is so small and unassuming, it gives the passer-by no indication of the treasures found inside, for this is no ordinary barber shop.
The bluegrass music wafting through the open screen door, the smell of brewing coffee and the lively conversation and hearty laughter are the first clues of the fun happening inside; or it might be the variety of languages being spoken- Chinese, German, Argentinian, Mongolian.
Outside the grey wooden building with the red and white spiral barber light are a row of multi colored backpacks and trekking poles. Across the street is the Port Clinton Post Office, a regular stop on the iconic long distance Appalachian Trail. The thru-hikers are attracted to the barber shop like moths to a flame for news on the trail travels fast and far about Frank the barber.
Inside Frank Russo’s shop, customers sit on rocking chairs and munch down free donuts and sip coffee from mugs. They tap their feet to the strum of a banjo or a guitar or a variety of instruments lined up on stands against the wall, just tempting a wandering musician to take one up and bring it to life. In the Port Clinton Barber Shop, hikers mix with the professional men, foreigners mix with the local codgers, millionaires mix with the toilet cleaners, while Frank in his pointy cowboy boots and barber’s smock clips away with a smile.
“They’re all equal when they walk in my door,” Frank exclaims. “Doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, I see them all.” They come from far away for not just a hair cut, but an experience.”
You can’t be in a hurry when you come into Frank’s barber shop. This isn’t the place for speed. Three generations come to get their hair cut here, even traveling professional musicians stop in to play some tunes and get a cut.
“This isn’t Barcelona or Berlin,” Frank exclaims, “it’s freaking’ Port Clinton! Where else can you go for a haircut and enjoy a free concert at the same time?”
The inside of Frank’s shop looks like a museum. The walls are covered in historic photos, prints, and post cards from new friends around the world. Customers bring in bouquets of flowers, sandwiches and cakes. Frank’s wife, Theresa, brings in fruit from the Weis store that she works at and pizzas on weekends, for the hikers have insatiable appetites. She sometimes sends senior hikers back to their home for a nap and a meal before continuing on. At the end of each day in the hiking season, a local senior from Hamburg stops in to offer his motor services. Perhaps a hiker wants to take in a tour of the Yuengling Brewery up the highway, oldest in the country, or “needs” a roller coaster ride at Hershey Park, or a new piece of gear at nearby Cabela’s, or just a restful night’s sleep at the Microtel Hotel down the pike.
Frank always wanted to be a barber as did his now 90-year old father, who often lends a hand on busy days. A line up of a dozen different electric shears compete for the barbers’ attention, right next to the dozen different harmonicas that is Frank’s real love. A female hiker came into the shop a few years back and asked if Frank could shave her head and sculpt an AT symbol. It became quite a fad and Frank has cut over a dozen of the hair do!
At first, the local Pennsylvania German were skeptical and standoffish to these adventuring souls as they sat next to the skimpily-clad hikers who are often in need of a bath and can look a bit eccentric. The local Germans can be slow to embrace folks who are different, so they proceed with caution; but they’ve become so fond of the hikers that they will often call Frank and ask, “Any Joy-mans there today?” and if so, they come right down and enjoy a chat in their mother tongue, even if they are not in need of a trim.
Frank introduces everyone in his shop. He networks and asks who needs what, who is selling something? He has sold over thirty musical instruments, wheel barrows, real estate in his little shop and he is known to barter haircuts with his customers for eggs, chicken feed, fencing.
The barber shop is also a free library for customers bring in books and magazines to share. Locals drop off their kids for Frank to babysit while they run to the store and he plant “sits,” permanently. A customer will say, “My grandma died and I can’t keep her plant or I’ll kill it. Will you watch it for me?” Frank drags the potted plants out every morning to the shop’s front patio and brings them back in every night.
Frank’s other love next to cutting hair and playing music is old coin appraisal. Every Christmas, he gifts his adult customers an antique buffalo nickle and a Lincoln penny to each child, amounting to hundreds every holiday season.
Frank the barber is about giving year round. “It’s a beautiful thing what happens inside my barber shop. I am a therapist, for I listen to my customers. They tell me their stories.”
It spread by word of mouth and in registers north and south along the Appalachian Trail. It spread up and down the traffic arteries of the Berks, Lehigh, Schuylkill, Bucks and counties beyond. His $8.00 hair cutting busienss is thriving. “I never planned for any of this to happen, it just evolved organically.”
Locals come in and say, “What can I do to help?’ because they see the family that Frank has given birth to here in Port Clinton.
“I’m just passing through this life like everyone else,” Frank explains. “Whatever I can do to help, to make a little fun and put a smile on someone’s face, that’s how I live my life.”
Frank says that the barber shop is the poor man’s country club but there is no poverty or lack anywhere in Frank Russo’s Port Clinton Barber Shop, just riches and treasures, the best kind in life, the ones without a price tag.
(A version of this will appear in an upcoming issue of Pennsylvania Magazine).
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