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Arthur Puopolo, 87; barber’s shop was a step back in time

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Mr. Puopolo welcomed customers for more than 40 years “in the shadow of the Old State House.”

As the sounds of an opera played in his downtown Boston barbershop, Arthur Puopolo sometimes paused mid-haircut, lifted his scissors into the air, and spontaneously joined the tenor in a climactic aria.

The scent of hot towels, aftershave balms, and complimentary espresso filled the air at Court Square Styling Shop, where Mr. Puopolo welcomed customers for more than 40 years "in the shadow of the Old State House," as his business card once said.

His shop's client list included Boston Mayor Kevin White, newsman Walter Cronkite, and Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, as well as average Bostonians who came for an affordable cut and maybe a sample of the homemade wine Mr. Puopolo bottled in his North End cellar.

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An Army veteran of the Korean War, he also gave free haircuts to homeless veterans, along with snacks that he kept on hand for all his customers: biscotti one day, a dish of sausage and hot peppers another, or salami and fresh Italian bread. Sometimes he slipped a homeless veteran some cash in a handshake, friends said.

Mr. Puopolo, an Avon native who lived in the North End, died of respiratory failure Dec. 20 in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 87.

"Arthur was the go-to barber – for both Boston's elite and the average man," said Owen L. Wyman, a client and a friend for 50 years who called Mr. Puopolo "a sincere, humble man, who in his own way contributed to our society."

Mr. Puopolo "was just the most selfless person you would ever know," said his nephew Frank Puopolo Jr. "We all became better people for knowing him."

The clock on the wall behind Court Square Styling's three barber chairs always ticked backward. Though Mr. Puopolo had the clock custom made so he could tell the hour in the mirror, many customers experienced a sense of traveling back in time when they sat down for a haircut.

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In addition to the homemade wine and snacks, there were adult men's magazines in the waiting area, but no television. Talk of the day was usually about the Red Sox.

In online forums, customers praised Mr. Puopolo's ability while in his 80s to give a vigorous scalp massage, though they noted that his singing was "terribly out of tune."

After a haircut, one customer complained to Mr. Puopolo that his sideburns were uneven.

"That's my calling card! How else will people know I cut your hair?" the man claimed Mr. Puopolo quipped, before fixing the sideburns.

A few years ago, poor health forced Mr. Puopolo to give up his daily walk from the North End to his shop and he put away his scissors for good.

His protege Genci "Jimmy" Karame, who continues to operate Court Square Styling, would usually visit him each Friday night after closing the shop. Karame said he emigrated from Albania and began working for Mr. Puopolo more than a dozen years ago.

"Everything is perfect with this guy. He's so nice, joking all the time, taking care of the customers," Karame said between haircuts on Christmas Eve. "He taught me everything."

The youngest of 11, Mr. Puopolo was a son of Victor and Mary Puopolo, who both emigrated from Italy. His father, who was known as Vito, worked in shoe factories and as a mason, Mr. Puopolo's family said.

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After attending high school in Avon, Mr. Puopolo joined the Army and served from 1946 to 1956, according to his family. He told relatives the Army tapped him to model uniforms, and that he kept reenlisting until he was stationed overseas because he wanted to visit foreign lands.

In 1960, he married Patricia Flaherty, who worked for New England Telephone for many years. They bought a North End home on Hull Street, overlooking the Copp's Hill Burying Ground. In the 1970s, they put a garden on the roof, where Mr. Puopolo enjoyed smoking a cigar after work.

Patricia Puopolo died in 2012 at age 86. A funeral Mass has been said for Mr. Puopolo, who in addition to his nephew Frank, leaves other nieces and nephews. Burial was in Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

Each summer before the St. Anthony's Feast street festival in the North End, Mr. Puopolo spent weeks preparing a banquet that he set up in front of his home for band members who played at the annual event, his family said.

Every fall, he bought grapes in Chelsea fruit markets and pressed the fruit in his cellar with help from relatives and friends.

"He made 50 to a hundred gallons every year," his nephew Frank said. "We'd fill the barrel, put on the air locks, and just wait for a fantastic wine."

When the elevated Central Artery highway separating the North End from the rest of Boston came down in 2004 as part of the Big Dig, Mr. Puopolo celebrated along with the many in the neighborhood.

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"It's giving us back what they took 50 years ago," he told the Globe that year. "I feel the same way about [the Central Artery] that I did about the Berlin Wall — it never should have gone up in the first place."

The Puopolos' home was always open to friends and family. When Wyman needed a series of cancer treatments at a nearby Boston hospital, Mr. Puopolo insisted that he stay with them.

"He didn't ask. He told me. I was to come and use his guest apartment," Wyman said.

The treatments left Wyman weak and with no appetite, so Mr. Puopolo made nightly visits to his friend's room with a tray of fresh food.

"He would not leave until I ate something," Wyman recalled.


J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.