By Arthur Kukoda
St. Patrick’s Day at the Alchemist & Barrister is where the wearin’ o’ the green meets the wearin’ o’ the Longbeard.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of A&B’s Longbeard Contest, where Princeton-area fellows sport their best face moss for fun and to help raise money for a great local cause.
This year is our first animal charity. Funds raised from the 2015 Longbeard Contest will benefit SAVE Animal Rescue (www.save-animal.org), which is hoping to complete a new shelter for homeless pets in Montgomery Township. The site was chosen as a nod to one of our employees, who recently rescued a pet from an abusive trainer.
The Longbeard Contest runs from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Alchemist & Barrister on Witherspoon Street, when a local barber will cut beard hairs from entrants to see how they measure up.
And if you think you have the stuff to grow a beard but not an epic beard, no worries. You can come in first in one of the other categories we make up as we go — shortest beard, ugliest beard, whitest beard, handsomest beard, most creative beard … we’ll find something for you.
This year, some 18 fellows signed up, paying their $25 entry fees for the bragging rights to Princeton’s most righteous facial hair, and a plaque to make sure everyone knows he has it. All entry fees go straight to the charity of choice.
Other prizes than bragging rights come through the generosity of our great business community. After all, the Longbeard Contest isn’t just an A&B thing, it’s a community event supported by lots of local businesses that donate prizes — good prizes, too, we’ve given away bikes, TVs, MP3 players — and gift certificates. Everyone does something to pitch in, to help keep the contest fun, and to make sure a great time happens for a great cause.
The contest started back in 1980 as a nod to Leon Uris’ novel, Trinity, in which the hero escapes a Northern Ireland prison by growing a great beard and walking right out the front door, under the guards’ noses.
That’s a great enough story for us to celebrate anyway, but the Alchemist & Barrister formally got whiskers growing when then-owner Tom Schmierer challenged this brother, Jake, to a beard-off. The public liked the idea so much that area fellows joined in, all in the spirit of raising funds for a local charity and putting a positive spin on St. Paddy’s Day.
Thirty-five years later, here we are, still growing out our whiskers for charity and fun. Beard-growing season for this year’s contestants kicked off between Feb. 1 and 5, when entrants came in baby-faced, signed up, and then set out for six weeks of growing.
By the way, there’s no need to be Irish to enter. Our contestants come from all walks of life. We get Princeton University grad students, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, seniors, married guys, single guys, Irish guys and Irish-for-a-Day guys.
We’ve even had a couple Princeton mayors enter the contest over the years — Marvin Reed came pretty close not long ago. And Howard Levy, the basketball coach at Princeton University almost won himself some bragging rights a few years back as well.
And yes, I always enter the contest myself, though I never win. I’ve come close a few times, but I still don’t get the bragging rights. Though I do keep the beard until the beginning of the next contest the following year.
One thing — you can only win three times. After that, we retire you with a nice plaque in the hall, because, well, we like new faces in the contest, and what fun would it be if one beard always won?
So why still do we do this after all these years? Because it’s so much fun and because it brings so much of the community together. As a business owner, you have to be civic-minded. There’s no way around it. The great thing is, none of us in the Princeton Merchants Association have to force it. Bringing the community together and giving back to it just come naturally to us.
The Longbeard Contest is our personal favorite way of giving back, here at the A&B. And over the years we’ve raised many thousands of dollars for so many worthy organizations. Typically, we raise anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per contest, depending on the organization. We’ve raised money for HiTOPS youth health center, Princeton Nursery School, the William E. Baker Trust, which helps raise awareness of spinal cord injuries, and our most successful campaign so far, the Wounded Warrior Project.
The contest is free to watch, but there’s a $2 cover because we have a band, Langaroo, who play the great old Irish ballads and standards. If you can’t grow a beard — or if you’ve grown a few so well that we’ve retired you — come out and watch and have a great St. Paddy’s Day for a great local cause.
Arthur Kukoda is a co-owner of Alchemist and Barrister and a member of the Princeton Merchants Association. The Hometown Princeton column is provided monthly by the PMA. On the web: princetonmerchants.org