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The final cut

Townshend barber Bob Semrau retires after 67 years in the business

TOWNSHEND—After 67 years of barbering — the first 37 mostly in his hometown of Meriden, Conn., and the last 30 in Townshend — Robert “Bob” Semrau has hung up his hair clippers.

“He’s just started getting the hang of it,” said Ted Grussing of Windham, who’s been getting his hair cut at Semrau’s Barber Shop in the big white house on Route 35 for at least 15 years.

The final four days of the 87-year-old’s barber shop brought a panorama of local men and boys, some of whom had been getting their haircuts at Semrau’s shop for as long as he been in Townshend.

The banter was half the fun, his customers said, but as they left, they showed their appreciation with displays of affection.

It was Friday, June 15, and more than 15 customers came for haircuts the day before Bob would close the shop for good and encase the very personal, museum-like space for posterity.

The long, capsule-shaped room is full of his history: on the walls hang pictures of iconic sports moments, of Semrau’s children, and of his quietly cherished military life. The centerpiece is the opulent barber chair he’s used for 67 years, made of green leather, steel, and chrome and fitted out to turn and lean every which way.

Semrau said he’s pretty certain it’s a Theo Koch chair, the kind that that can sell for upwards of $1,000 at auction. The chair, at least for the time being, is staying put. Someday, Semrau said, he’ll give it to his son.

Near the chair on a shelf is a small, square vacuum device with a vacuum-cleaner-like hose that he uses to clean up wayward hair on his customers’ necks, collars, and shoulders.

“I don’t know how long I’ve had that but nothing ever goes wrong with it,” Semrau said.

And what does he do with all the hair he sweeps up?

“A customer takes the hair,” he reported. “He puts it in nylon stockings and hangs it around his garden. The human smell keeps the deer away.”

Other familiar barber shop equipment the straight razor, the large glass container filled with blue liquid and combs, and the spray can of Barbasol shaving cream all have their place within reach of the chair.

Semrau said that after his military service in World War II, he went to barber college in Hartford for six months on the GI Bill.

“I learned to shave balloons,” he said.

Bringing the family

“Where else would you find a 1908 Sears catalogue?” asked Pam Swing, who had come with her husband Johnny and their two sons, Eli, 15, and Alva, 17, from Brookline. It was time for the males in the family to get haircuts. They sat in the chairs against one wall reserved for patrons.

“Look, there’s a nice canoe for $20 and a rifle for $1.48, reduced from $1.98,” exclaimed Pam on her tour of the catalogue.

Her older son was first up in the barber chair.

Johnny Swing, the well-known crafter of tables, sofas, and other furniture shaped with coins, has been coming for haircuts since the family moved up from New York about 20 years ago.

Pam, a painter who has a gallery in New York where her work hangs, said the kids got their first haircuts here when they were toddlers.

“It’s funny,” she said, “Bob told the kids when they were young he could crank their heads right around if they didn’t stay still and ever since then they stay still. He taught them how to stay still.”

The boys, both budding ski racers, go to Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield.

A long handshake ended their visit, as Johnny said, “Bob, we’re really gonna miss you.”

That sentiment, sometimes accompanied with a suggestion of a hug, echoed the feelings of nearly all his customers during Bob’s last days in the shop. Often, the $7 charge was filled out with big tips.

Todd Lawley, Newfane’s Fire Chief since 1985, came for a cut a few days before the shop was closing. He said he’s been coming to Semrau’s for 20 years “because it’s always good gossip and it’s very reasonable. I come three times a year.”

Bill Eckhardt, a former Selectboard member in Townshend for 13 years in the mid 1980s and 1990s came the same day.

“I usually come once a month and, this time, I waited too long,” he said.

Eckhardt said what he liked the most about living here was, “Basically the people, the scenery, the cows, turkeys, deer.”

Semrau, who is taciturn and speaks only when he has something to say interjected, “I like the quietness.”

Asked what the customers at Semrau’s usually talked about, he said, “the whole schmear.”

A few of Bob’s phonograph records (“more than 500 in the house”) are in the shop and he plays them from time to time on a vintage record player sitting on a table close to the chair. He says they are mostly from the 1940s and 1950s.

“Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Sammy Kaye.”

Sports elicited comment from a lot of the customers and, while the Celtics were in favor, the declaration that “The Red Sox are horrible...” didn’t get an argument.

Another local notable, Dr. Robert Backus, a fixture at Grace Cottage Hospital for nearly 35 years, dropped by for a cut, the same thing he’s been doing since Semrau opened his shop 30 years ago.

Backus and Samrau embraced when the doctor left.

The last day

Off and on for the days leading up to his retirement, his regular customers showed up to keep Semrau busy, although the half-day on Saturday was very slow. Lots of things were going on that day, including the Leland & Gray Union High School graduation down the road.

Other long-time customers came around to have their last Semrau haircut, including Walter Schwippert, Dave Fontaine, Dick Omand, Raymond Ballantine, Ted Cook, Bernard “Bunny” Davis, Bob Stomsky, Bill Nelson, Norman Flynn, Milford Thompson, Forrest Jacobs, John Aaron, Roger Brown, Ross Evans, and Tom Galincet.

Half the town’s residents seem to know Barbara Semrau, Bob’s wife, who ran a nursery school/day care in the house for more than 15 years.

“It didn’t have a name,” she said. “They just came, some all day. They called me Barbara.”

The couple, married 62 years, have three children, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One family lives in Kentucky, where Bob and Barbara are considering settling in the future. They’ve gone there off and on for years.

The house they live in actually is owned by their daughter Kathy. She redid the barn attached to the rear of the house where she lives. She and Bob attend to the many flower gardens surrounding the house, gardens that merit attention from many customers.

“It’s funny,” Semrau said, “I remember as a kid she couldn’t stand getting any dirt on her. Now, when you see her out there, she looks like a hillbilly.”

While it is clear from his demeanor when talking about his military service during World War II that it holds great significance for him, he won’t talk much about it.

“I was in the infantry in Patton’s Third Army,” Semrau said, in combat in France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, all over Europe. He says he’s proudest of his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the “Badge of Glory” given to infantry soldiers who engaged in active combat against enemy forces, and celebrated in the last stanza of this anonymous poem: “For those of us who served the cause/And brought this nation glory/It’s the Combat Infantryman’s Badge/That really tells the story.”

Semrau said marrying his wife, having children, and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) are probably the best things in his life.

“And losing my best buddy in the war,” he said, was probably the saddest.

And the best thing about his shop?

“Working with the guys, making friends, a mixture of professionals and laborers,” Semrau said.

Then, for the last time, he turned over the “Open” sign in front of the shop to “Closed.”

“It’s a sad day,” he concluded.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #159 (Wednesday, July 4, 2012).

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