After 80 Years, Swartz Family Ends Barber Run in Covington
The old neon sign that bore the family business’s name for decades no longer hangs in the small storefront window on Pike Street. As demolition continues on the floors above the space that had housed his barber shop for many years, Jack Swartz walked up to a first floor window, shielded his eyes, and peered inside.
The space, save for a broom, dustpan, and a few mirrors, is empty now. The waiting chairs that once lined the walls of the shop are gone and all of Jack’s belongings have been boxed up and removed.
For over 80 years, the Swartz family has operated a barber shop in Covington, but at age 83 and with the redevelopment of the Mutual Building underway, Jack has decided the time to close has come.
As we sit around a table next door at Old Town Café, Jack tells me about the shop’s beginnings with his wife of sixty-three years, Janis, seated by his side. The story of Swartz’s Barber Shop dates back to 1928 when Jack’s father opened in a space beneath the railroad tracks at the corner of Pike and Russell streets. Jack says his father took care of many of the men building the tracks above his shop who came by for a haircut or shave. The men, he would later tell Jack, were often covered in lime dust and sweat but were hard-working, honest men.
In 1931, Jack was born and a short time later the family moved from a home at Sixth and Russell to a place one block north at Fifth Street. Jack, who “lived and worked in the shadow of Mother of God” his whole life says he has never set foot inside the iconic church. By the time Jack was a teenager, his father had moved his business to the corner of Washington and Russell before buying out another barber shop across the street and relocating for the third time.
Having spent most of his childhood hanging out in his father’s shop, Jack said he never gave much thought to becoming anything other than a barber and he enrolled in Moler Barber College, now Moler Beauty Academy, across the river in Cincinnati in 1948. After graduating in 1950, Jack spent one year as an apprentice working alongside his father on Washington Street before earning his Master’s license.
Although he had planned on settling down in Covington and helping his father grow the family business, Jack was called to serve his country in the Korean War. Before leaving, however, Jack proposed to Janis and the two were wed on Christmas Day in 1951.
“She asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year,” Jack said. “And I told her ‘you’.”
After a brief time at Fort Meade, Maryland, Jack served as a medical technician at Brock Army Medical Center in San Antonio and Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda.
“Mostly, I was a barber,” Jack said.
At his request, Jack’s father and Janis would ship his tools to wherever it was Jack was stationed at the time.
“Back then, packages were limited to a certain number of pounds,” Janis said. “We had a little scale and his dad and I would weigh everything. If it was over, they wouldn’t ship it.”
After returning home, Jack and his father continued to work together near Mother of God until his dad decided to retire and sold the building to Harold Thornberry, owner of local gentleman’s club The Pad, who also owned the bar next door to the barber shop. With the help of Eddie Schultz, who owned Schulz Jewelers at the corner of Pike and Madison, Jack moved the family business to a space next door on Pike Street.
At the time, Jack says, “Pike Street jumped. It was alive and vibrant. When there was gambling down here, business was great.”
Over the years, Jack said he watched several great friends and business owners come and go. “Parisian, Penney’s, Dalton’s. Ted Gross over at the Ideal Shoe Store. Teddy Pappas’ place. There was even a shop across the street that made caps for all of the major league umpires – Frank’s." For several years, the city thrived and business at the barber shop was good. Jack says he was doing well and then “things started going downhill.”
“When the shopping center went in, businesses moved out. When they built the industrial park near the airport, people moved out to be closer to jobs. The town started dying and the city did nothing.”
Jack said he watched as the city that was once so alive, grew quiet. Many of his neighbors on Pike Street moved their businesses or closed altogether and the people who once filled the sidewalks had seemingly disappeared.
Since that time, Jack says things have been quiet on Pike Street and after over 30 years at his corner location, he was ready to retire. Despite the city’s longtime struggles, Jack feels Covington is trying to make a comeback.
“I don’t think Covington will ever be the city it once was,” Jack says. “But with the proper leadership it could come back. We left you all in a bad spot. You’re going to have to be the ones to turn it around. It’s going to be on you.”
After closing his doors for the last time on March 29th, Jack says he has been enjoying his retirement so far.
“I’ve been getting sleep,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
The couple, who live in Taylor Mill, also spend time working in their yard and enjoy coming into the city for breakfast at Old Town Café. The two have one daughter, a schoolteacher who lives in New Albany, Mississippi with her husband and adopted son, now a student at Ole Miss, who they see a few times a year.
After we finished lunch, I asked Jack about his favorite spot in Covington. As if expecting the question, he quickly mentioned the murals located on the floodwall along the Ohio River. “They are amazing. That artist did a hell of a job,” he said before adding, “I don’t know if enough people appreciate what they have here.”
And with that, he turned to face his wife and smiled.
Story & photo by Jerod Theobald, managing editor of The River City News