Barber shops have been in Brookfield from its earliest days. In the 1890s, Charles Rice ran one at Melville Hall, at 8865 Burlington Blvd. By April 1909, “Charlie” had moved to his own two-story brick building at 3738 Grand Blvd. Sensing opportunity, more barbers came into the village, settling their scissors and combs on the heads of local men and children, and sometimes even women.
In the 1920s, Bohumil Robert Krafka came to Brookfield and began working at a barber shop on the west side of Grand Boulevard. He decided to set up his own barber shop in the one-story structure next to (just east of) the old Jacobson building, at 8869 Burlington Blvd. (Today, Irish Times is on that site.)
Here he opened “Bob’s Barber Shop,” operating the business with Emil J. Padar Company barber shop equipment made in the year 1922. This equipment was formerly used in a barber shop at 15th Street and Oak Park Avenue in Berwyn.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. But Krafka had not heard this news yet, and moved his barber shop equipment that morning to a store in the new Siebert’s (later Fisher’s) Drug Store building, at 8906 Fairview Ave. He opened for business the next day, on Dec. 8. In the early 1940s, Krafka bought a neon sign that read “Bob’s Barber Shop,” and hung it in the front window of his store.
According to Robert “Bob” Fiala, who started working for Krafka in August 1949, the barber shop equipment manufacturer “Padar, himself, used to stop in from time to time and meet with Krafka.”
The family of Henry Fiala, Bob’s father, came to Brookfield in October 1928, and moved into the bungalow at 3741 Harrison Ave.
“Dad built bungalow homes at 3306 and 3308 Sunnyside, 3734 Harrison and on the 3700 blocks of Raymond, Madison and Arthur,” Bob Fiala recalled. “He lost a few houses during the Depression, and the only one he managed to keep was the one at 3734 Harrison.”
Bob Fiala spent his schooldays at S.E. Gross, going from kindergarten to eighth grade. He went on to Riverside-Brookfield High School and then was drafted for 14 months.
Fiala served during World War II in the Medical Corps at the 107th Madigan General Hospital at Fort Lewis, Wash. There, among his other duties, he gave buzz haircuts to patients in the Contagious Disease section of the hospital.
Afterwards, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, Fiala went to barber school at the Moler Barber College, at 11 S. Halsted St. in Chicago, beginning in September 1948. Today, Fiala recalls that “it was a six-month program. After that, I apprenticed at a few different shops”Mike’s Barber Shop in Westmont, Bill’s Barber Shop on Harlem Avenue in Riverside and one in Congress Park, at the Dunning Barber Shop on Ogden Avenue. Then I worked at Bob Krafka’s.”
Fiala continued barbering for Krafka until December 31, 1967, when Fiala signed the papers and bought the business from his boss. Charlotte Siebert, who owned the entire building since the days of Siebert’s Drug Store (1926-45), charged Krafka $75 a month rent during the 1960s, and Fiala became her new tenant.
The next year, 1968, Fiala “had a lot of fun, helping out with the Brookfield Diamond Jubilee, and even joined the Brothers of the Brush,” sporting a mustache and beard for the celebration that summer.
Sometimes Fiala had breaks in his normal daily routine, such as when Brookfield Police Chief Edward Barcal was in one of the chairs and was covered up with a towel.
“Some kid came in and had noticed that the rear door to the Westfield Dairy Mart was open, for a pie delivery,” Fiala said. “‘Do you want any pies? I can steal some, the pie door is open,’ the boy told me. I took the towel off Chief Barcal and the boy ran.
“I always flew the flag out front,” Fiala added. “One summer day, a guy came up, barefoot, and with overalls on. ‘Who the blank owns this blank flag?’ he asked. I told him, ‘This is the American flag, and it can stay there. I can use the sidewalk properly. I have a business permit.’
“He walked away. In a little while, someone from the American Legion called me up, and said, ‘I hear you’ve been having trouble displaying your flag. If you have any problems, call us.’ Then the Veterans of Foreign Wars called me up and said, ‘We got a call. If you have any problems, call us.’ It made me proud. I thought, ‘I’m displaying this flag to honor servicemen, and I’m keeping it up.'”
The freestanding flag, flying from a pole set in the cement sidewalk out front of the barber shop, became a familiar sight during all the years Fiala was in business.
“In early 1968, when they poured the sidewalk, I used a wood dowel, but it swole up, and I couldn’t get the flag pole out,” Fiala said. “A man measured the pole hole with a micrometer and then came back with a machined pop-up aluminum bar plug. The pole fit in it just fine. One day in winter 1968, the pole hole froze on me. Tony Sedivy said ‘When you put the plug in there, put a little rubbing alcohol in there, too. It won’t freeze.’ This worked.
“I got rid of the ashtrays in the shop in the mid-1980s. ‘No more smoking,’ I said. Then a guy came in, and wanted to smoke. I told him ‘It’s my barber shop. I don’t want any more smoking.’ The guy went out, and then came back in with no smokes, and told me he was a damn fool for smoking in the first place.”
Bob Fiala ran his barber shop, now paying $208 a month rent, until Feb. 1, 1992, when it closed forever. He had decided to retire. For over 50 years, a barber shop had been at this location, under the ownership of two Bobs.
The neon sign in the window saying “Bob’s Barber Shop” may have glowed for just as long a time, but now it was shut off, and the “Open” sign in the window was turned over to “Closed” for the last time. Fiala gave the last haircut in the shop to his son, Douglas.
Painted on the window, below the unelectrified neon sign were the words “Bob … ‘Hairs’ to a Long Happy Retirement! Enjoy!”
As if to make the message even more obvious, another “Closed” sign, making two in all, was set in the window, and still another one dangled in the doorway.
Yet, Bob’s Barber Shop was fated to exist for a short while longer. At that time, I was curator of the Brookfield Historical Society Museum in the Grossdale train station, and it occurred to me that some part of that barber shop might make a fine display in the museum. I arranged with Fiala, on Feb. 22, 1992, to go over and take photos inside the shop.
While I was there, the subject came up relating to a possible donation of a few items of his barbering equipment. We both thought this sounded like a great idea, so, with developed photos in hand, I proposed, at the Historical Society meeting on Feb. 24, that we accept and set up some of that 70-year-old barbershop equipment. The society was in agreement, as long as I thoroughly oversaw the project.
On March 1, Historical Society members Ed Bednar and Director Frank Vitale showed up at the barbershop, as well as myself, and my brother-in-law Robert Travis, and his wife, my sister, Elizabeth Stach Travis.
On this day, we moved items to the train station museum. One of the heavy barber chairs had to be disassembled, its seat section removed from its base, and taken over to the station with parts of the “back bar,” that included a large central mirror and a light fixture. We found that this could not all be accomplished in one day, but had to be finished the next day.
Due to electrical work being done at the station, reassembling the equipment could not begin right away. I was determined to have it set up and in operation by the time of the Grossdale Station’s relocation celebration open house, on April 12, 1992, commemorating the event of the station’s move on April 9, 1981.
Finally, on March 29, Bob Fiala, his son Doug and I began work on putting everything together. By April 6, 1992, the exhibit had, at last, been completely installed.
On April 12, the barber chair spun around slickly, the back bar looked just as it had at 8906 Fairview Ave., the central mirror was spotless, and the light fixture glowed upon it all. That day, I, in my long white apron, explained various aspects of the display to dozens and dozens of people, young and old, who couldn’t wait to sit in the barber’s chair.
One visitor thought it was all absolutely magnificent, and that was the reigning Illinois State Senator Judy Baar Topinka, who insisted on sitting down in the chair while I hovered over her hair, genially brandishing a comb and hair clippers (no hair was actually cut).
A professional-looking photographer took our picture, but I have never found out who he was. Afterwards, I looked in vain for it in local papers, and considered that maybe Topinka had brought her own photographer along with her. Apparently not. No one, to this day, knows what has become of that photo.
The open house had attracted upwards of 130-150 people, and may have been the most-visited open house the historical society ever had.
In spite of its success, the barber shop exhibit lasted for only a year. During that time, society benefactor Robert Hladik, long time businessman who built an uncountable number of houses in Brookfield, loved to go to the station museum, “and the first thing he’d do was to sit in the old barber chair,” still recalls Bob Fiala, proudly.
The exhibit was officially disassembled and removed from the station museum on April 6, 1993, exactly one year after its installation had been completed.
And, years later, after the equipment was sold on eBay, that was the end of the two Bob’s Barber Shops in Brookfield. Here, history has had its beginning, and here, history has had its ending, and in years to come, except for words, memories will be swept away, like snips of hair on a barber shop floor.