Waltzing into retirement

Port Richmond barber shop owner Casimir Kowalski retires after 50 years in the business

By Melissa Komar

The iconic bunch of cacti in the storefront window had shrunk considerably in number, and Casimir Kowalski was sweeping up tufts of hair, remnants from one of his final days of work.

On April 22, Kowalski put down his shears and closed up shop at his namesake barber shop in Port Richmond. May would have marked 50 years since he opened his business at 3176 Richmond St.

The scent of Clubman and Brylcreem was strong as ever, and a steady stream of customers flowed through the door throughout the day, giving no indication the barber pole outside would soon cease to rotate.

The usual conversations among barber and clients, however, were more poignant.

“My first and last barber was here,” said Bogdan Bolanowski, who had come to Kowalski for 13 years.

Newer customers were just as impacted by his retirement.

“[Casimir] will certainly be missed,” said Brian Miller, a client of four years. “I don’t know where I’m going to go after this.”

Miller recalled Kowalski giving him a cactus, a gesture the barber had extended to his clients since announcing his retirement.

Golden goodbye: Casimir Kowalski stands in front of the barber shop he operated in Port Richmond for 50 years.

While only a handful remain, cacti were a staple in the window since Kowalski purchased the building that had previously been a barbershop.

“When I came here, there was [a cactus] that was over 50 years olds,” he said, “and my cousin gave me a rubber tree plant and it was cooked in the window the first summer. So, I just stuck with the cactus.”

Since opening in 1967, Kowalski had cut hair from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., five days a week.

And although his prices were higher than other local barbers in the beginning, he hadn’t raised his prices — $9 for men and $8 for children — since 2005.

“When I came here, I charged $2,” he said. “With the economy being not so good, I stayed the same in the 2000s. And then I went into the hospital for a few months. And when I came back, I was just happy my customers came back, so I didn’t raise the prices.”

Plagued by personal and family health issues, Kowalski closed around noon the last few years.

He cared for his late wife, Renee, who had Alzheimer’s, and in 2012, he had a pacemaker inserted and and was hospitalized for six months after contracting staph infection twice from the surgery.

After the death of his wife last year, Kowalski said, “it is just time.”

“My wife used to go out in our front yard and drink coffee and watch me go to work, and now I will go out and drink coffee and watch the other people go to work,” Casimir said, laughing.

Times were not always as easy for the longtime Port Richmond barber, who got his start at his great uncle’s barber shop in Nicetown.

When Kowalski opened his shop in Port Richmond, there were several established barbers in the neighborhood.

“I knew I had to sit and wait for the customers,” he said. “There were so many barbers and barbers don’t quit. They work until they die. And it wasn’t easy because I wasn’t from Richmond. It definitely was hard.”

Kowalski, who is Polish, immigrated from France to the United States in 1958 when he was 18 years old and spent a couple years juggling jobs and serving in the armed forces before opening his own business.

After working in a restaurant and a couple of barbershops, he was drafted in 1963 and served two years at Fort Ord in California.

During his time in the U.S. Army, Kowalski learned to develop black and white camera film, and the California landscape served as a perfect backdrop for his photographs.

His passion for photography was born in a barbershop a couple years prior to his army days.

Aside from working for his great uncle, Michael Bielec, Kowalski spent a few years at Gimbels in Center City.

One of his customers had a Leica brand camera and Kowalski fell in love with it.

Amid paying for dancing lessons at Fred Astaire Studios — he won a package of dance lessons and decided to continue studying — he saved up enough money for a used Leica.

More than 50 years later, he still uses the same brand and used it while working for Gwiazda, a former weekly Polish Port Richmond newspaper, and the Polish American News.

His work adorned the walls of his barbershop: The California landscape, a rose from his mother’s garden and jets from an aircraft show formed a permanent art display.

More recognizable subjects line his photo albums, including Saint Pope John Paul II — before he was pope — Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, George H. W. Bush, Laura Bush, Sarah Brightman and the annual Pulaski Day Parade in Philadelphia.

“Every time someone was in the spotlight, I was in the dark,” Kowalski said. “But it was an experience and I enjoyed it . And I was really busy, but I had still had a chance to dance.”

Kowalski and his wife would go to dance clubs just to polka. Tangos were his favorite.

“We went dancing a lot,” he said. “Even when she had problems with her knees, she told me to dance with someone else. I would dance the slow ones with her and I would dance with someone else for the faster styles.”

Similar to his business, Kowalski cut back on dancing because of health-related issues.

Along with his dancing shoes, he is ready to hang up his shears.

While Kowalski is happy to leave the long hours behind, he will miss the people.

“One thing I am going to miss is my customers because I would have someone to talk to,” he said. “It’s what kept me going even when my wife was sick. I would go to work not for the money, I would go to talk to the people.”

As far as retirement plans go, Kowalski is keeping it low-key.

“People ask me what I’m going to do, and I already did it,” he said. “I already did everything. I have nothing to do. I’m going to take it easy.”