After nearly 50 years of cutting hair, Tom Kaiser knows the tough part of his job all too well.
"The hardest part is when someone you know for a long time — 40, 45, 50 years — when they die. They're like family. You get to know these people, and they get to know you," said Kaiser, 73, owner of Comb 'N Shear barbershop.
Other than that, Kaiser said, he spends a lot of time smiling. And trying to make other people smile.
In fact, he said, "I'd like when people read this to have a smile on their faces."
It's not quite the ambition he expected to find when he joined the U.S Navy. But that's exactly what the departing barber handed him, along with all his barber tools in an ammo box, when Kaiser stepped aboard ship decades ago.
"I bought it for $15, and I left two years later and sold it for $10 and (had) made $8,000," Kaiser laughed.
After the Navy, Kaiser apprenticed for a few years in Milwaukee, then opened his own shop on Wauwatosa Avenue in 1966. When he had chance to buy an old grocery store in 1991, he moved to his current location on N. 76th Street, just a hair outside the official Wauwatosa city limits.
Kaiser mostly caters to men. He shaves a lot of faces, a lot of necks. And, he said, "I do a lot of flat tops. I like to think my flat tops are like the one Tom Cruise wore in 'Top Gun,' you know, that airplane movie?"
But he also cuts hair for women and kids. And it's not unusual to find three generations of a family waiting for a trim.
"My oldest customer is 103. And he still drives," Kaiser said.
The shop reflects the people who patronize it, with everything from copies of a wife's recipes — "People get out their cell phones and take pictures of them," Kaiser said — to a table of free zucchini outside, and certificates to commemorate first haircuts, with envelopes to keep those precious discarded curls.
Kids seem especially enamored with the shop, which includes a spot just for them, often a Formula One car mounted on the chair or, even more popular, an Army tank with a gun mounted on the chair.
"I rotate them, so kids ask, 'Where is the Army tank? Where is the car?' I remember one little boy, he was outside and wouldn't come in because I didn't have the Army tank up."
Other kids can't wait to get inside.
"They come running into the barbershop with big smiles on their faces, and their parents are still in their cars. They come in talking to me like I'm their grandpa," Kaiser said.
"It is wonderful," he said.
It fills you right up."
JUST THE FACTS
Business: Comb 'N Shear, 2877 N. 76th St.
Phone: (414) 774-4980
Owner: Tom Kaiser
Type of business: barbershop
Pearls of wisdom: "In order to do well, you have to have a sincere passion and joy for people. You have to have technique. You have to have a sense of art. And you have to strive to do the art every time."
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