In 1964, according to an old sign in Tony Polito's barber shop, a haircut cost $2.25.
Today, a haircut costs $13, which is still a bargain. "Donations accepted," the current sign announces. "Entertainment is free."
The entertainment takes many forms. For starters, the full name of this barber shop about five miles south of West Chester on Route 202 is Tony Polito's Barber Shop and Military Museum.
Outside an American flag stirs over the barber pole. Inside, where the decor reveals no trace of feminine interference and the mannequins are attired like Gen. Patton, the eyes are overwhelmed by all manner of militaria - helmets, uniforms, boots, bayonets, badges, ammo containers, dummy and decommissioned weapons, as well as souvenirs and collectibles attesting to Polito's lifelong love affair with the police and police work. From the ceiling hangs a German flag with a swastika on it that was captured by a unit of American soldiers, who signed it. Entering the barber shop and museum is like stepping into your grandfather's attic, if your grandfather had a passion for soldiers and cops.
The walls are adorned with framed, autographed photos of men Polito considers heroes - former Philadelphia Eagle Bill Bergey, the legendary aviator and test pilot Chuck Yeager, South Philadelphia's "Wild Bill" Guarnere, who lost a leg in the Battle of the Bulge and was portrayed in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.
On the television, cop shows, war movies, and John Wayne flicks play constantly. For music, Polito is happy to oblige with a stack of CDs - strictly tunes from the '50s and '60s. ("We're in a time warp here," he notes, gratuitously.) Hard-shelled peanuts are dispensed for free - just make sure you drop the husks in the plastic drywall buckets.
But the main source of entertainment is "Uncle Tony" Polito himself.
"You don't come here for the haircuts, you come here for the wealth of knowledge," said Frank McArdle, 43, of Chadds Ford one recent Friday afternoon, with more than a touch of irony. "There's no world crisis that hasn't been solved in Anthony J. Polito's Barber Shop and Military Museum."
"I enjoy the conversation," said another regular, Ben Davis, 30, a strapping Malvern Prep alum and major-league catcher who had just been released by the Yankees. "Tony is always upbeat. He's always got a story to tell. Plus, he likes deer, and I'm a big hunter."
Hunting is a major topic. So are fishing, baseball, guns, cars and women, particularly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not likely to win many votes among the patrons, and Rosie O'Donnell, who is unanimously loathed, Polito says, for being a "loudmouth."
Politics and world affairs are also discussed, but "that's a touchy subject these days in the barber business," Polito confesses, "because people are so divided on Iraq. We do get some feisty arguments here."
Polito's opinion, which he's not shy about sharing: "I don't believe anybody likes war, but this was a necessity. I'm kind of a hawk. I like to fight."
To stoke conversation, there's an ample supply of reading material: Maxim, Field & Stream, Motor Trend, Shotgun News, to name a few.
"I give an old-fashioned tapered haircut for old-fashioned guys," declares Polito. If you want something fancier or more stylish, he advises, go to a beauty parlor or "cosmetologist," a word he pronounces with a sneer. Most of his customers give him succinct directions: "short" and "shorter."
Polito, 66, has been barbering for nearly 50 years, 28 at his present location. He remembers when most of his customers were farmers and Route 202 was a two-lane country road. Although his shop has two chairs, and Polito has had apprentices from time to time, it's strictly a solo operation. He works five days a week, administering 20 to 30 haircuts a day.
"I've been working 45 years without a week off," Polito says. "I've never closed the shop down. I've never been away from West Chester for a solid week. I don't know if that's good or bad."
On the counter behind him, there are actually two bottles of Wildroot hair tonic. He still has, and uses, his first electric clipper, a 45-year-old relic. "There's nothing new around here," he understates.
Polito describes himself as "a worn-out old master." He's an artist with scissors, "blending" hair so that a customer doesn't look as if he's had a bowl placed on his head.
Polito knows no other way.
"I don't cut by number," he says proudly. "That's like telling Andy Wyeth to paint by number."
Polito inherited his work ethic from his parents, who ran a corner grocery. "They didn't take a day off. How do you close a corner grocery store?" Discouraged by dyslexia, he dropped out of high school in 10th grade. He went to barber school and opened a shop when he was 18. When he was 30, he returned to school, taking classes two nights a week for a year, and earned his high-school diploma.
His real ambition was to serve in the armed forces. In 1958, when recruiters visited his barber school, Polito tried to join the Marines, then the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. He was rejected by all four. The reason: When he was 9, he lost his right eye when a nail he was hammering ricocheted.
"Maybe if it had been my left eye, they would have taken me," he reasons, "but it was my lead eye."
Polito's fascination with uniforms, discipline and service extends to police work. For about 10 years when he was younger, from 1962 to 1972, Polito was a part-time police officer in West Chester and Westtown Township. He reveres the State Police and has an extensive collection of badges and uniforms. He continues to serve as a West Chester constable.
"I grew up in West Chester and never left. I was born in Chester County Hospital and live two blocks from it. So that's not going very far in life."
One admirer calls Polito West Chester's "first citizen," the personification of the "civic glue" that sociologists fear is disappearing from many communities. He helped launch, and for many years ran, the Good Fellowship Club Ambulance Service in West Chester. He served as Chester County Civil Defense rescue chief and still sits on the borough Civil Service Commission. He is a stalwart member of the West Chester Men's Service Club.
Polito's signature accomplishment is the Hall of Heroes in the Chester County Courthouse. He was the prime mover behind the project to commemorate 500 county patriots who died during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Granite tablets engraved with their names were dedicated in 1999. Not surprisingly, Polito - proud hawk, avowed enemy of flag-desecrators and left-wing liberals - has plenty of opinions, which he's not shy about expressing. His voice is amplified on the local AM radio station, WCHE, which he calls regularly to share his views.
"I don't like people who attack other people for personal gain," he says. "We've had a lot of that recently in West Chester politics. 'If you can't beat 'em, destroy 'em.' I don't like that."
On today's youth: "The drug situation is bad. We have a society that revolves around weekend drinking, almost daily drinking in West Chester."
On 9/11: "It wasn't just a one-time thing. The threat is real and all around us. We're too complacent. I don't believe we're doing enough to prevent another one."
On the family: "One of the reasons for the erosion of our society is we've lost that sense of family. Every Sunday at my house, we put a meal on the table at noon, and the kids come home with the grandchildren."
At 4 p.m. on that recent Friday, with no one else waiting, Polito decided to call it quits. It had been a long day - 30 haircuts since 8 a.m. He had worked "straight through" and was deservedly bushed. He accepted his wages from his last customer, who left pleased with his 5-o'clock shadow coif. Then he went outside and reverently removed the flag from its holder.
"If more people would work like I do," he reflected, "this country would have no problems."