Ed Zembrycki, longtime proprietor of Tony's Barber Shop in Excelsior, has managed to avoid many of the issues that keep 21st century business owners awake at night. He doesn't have to worry about hackers, since the shop doesn't have a website, and Zembrycki doesn't do email. There's no marketing-advertising budget, yet customers from around the lake area still manage to find the shop, and keep coming back. There's no complicated menu of services and price points. A hand-lettered sign lists the available options: haircut $15; mustache trim $5.
To survive more than 60 years on Water Street, Tony's Barber Shop has outlasted a succession of men's hair trends. It survived the hippie era, then disco haircuts, then punk-rock buzzcuts. Now surrounded on all sides by trendy Water Street shops and restaurants, the shop where Zembrycki and his father Tony before him have clipped hair (Tony began as a barber in 1934) could be considered
a time-traveling portal into a simpler age.
There are four vintage barber chairs, two in the back dating from sometime early in the 20th century, plus the chair Tony used and the one Ed uses now. There's probably a story behind every artifact, including the functional ones.
The old cash register has a splintered wooden drawer; on more than one occasion, burglars pried it open to grab a few dollars left in the till, not noticing the key Zembrycki keeps inserted in the register lock.
The walls are covered with faded photos of memorable people, cars and other things. One is a head shot of Zembrycki’s late friend, roving ambassador and Rolling Stones historian “Mister Jimmy” Heutmaker.
The store also functions as a taxidermy museum, including a school of wall-mounted fish, deer heads, a stuffed beaver, a stuffed snow goose and other paraphernalia. Zembrycki stopped going hunting a couple of years ago, after his father and two other longtime hunting and fishing partners passed away.
After graduating from Minnetonka High School back in the early 1960s, Ed Zembrycki was working for a lumber supply place. “One day, my dad pointed out that the concrete and sheet rock would get heavier as I got older. He suggested I go to barber school.” Zembrycki took his advice, enrolled at Moler Barber School in downtown Minneapolis, and joined his father at the shop.
When the Rolling Stones made their legendary visit to Excelsior in 1964, they did not stop at Tony's; the Stones have never spent much time in barbershops. But the shop has had a few celebrity customers over the years. There's an autographed photo of Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway on the wall.
Lifelong Excelsior resident Tim Stolz has been getting his hair cut at Tony's since before he can remember. Tim’s father, Dony, got his first haircut at Tony's. He says his grandfather Don and Zembrycki had a unique relationship, sitting face-to-face as members of the same Thursday breakfast club for years. “When [my grandfather] was ill and living at a care facility, every two or three weeks, Ed would come and give him a haircut. And he gave him his last haircut,” he explains, before Stoltz's death in 2015.
Tim Stoltz also appreciates Zembrycki’s skill as a barber. “Over the years, I don't think I've ever had to tell him how I wanted my hair cut.”
Zembrycki will turn 78 on December 19, but he's not considering retirement. Last winter, he had to close the shop for four months due to a hospitalization, but the customers have gradually come back.
He can handle the workload and enjoys hanging out in the shop, Tuesday through Saturday, clipping the occasional head and kibitzing with neighborhood friends, who are drawn by his deadpan humor and historical perspective. “I plan to keep working as long as I can hang in there,” he says. “It's a fun place to be and a good town; they all know drink how to coffee and throw the bull around.”