Rooks Barbershop

I’ve lost track of what number Q&A this is, but that’s probably irrelevant. This go round is with Justin King of Rooks Barbershop in Portland, Oregon. We met a bit of over a year ago when I made these images. The thing that stands out to me about Justin is that he’s every bit a business man as he is a barber. Maybe even more so a business man, which isn’t common to see in the barbershop world. He’s got a lot of irons in a lot of fires. Good dude and I appreciate his willingness to say what he feels regardless of the outcome.

Follow him on Instagram @hellandgrace and the shops @rooksbarbershop

Click here to check out the last Q&A with Brent Ferris from Good Times Barbershop

Click here to check out the book


“In the Army, I’d bring dudes into the barracks and fade them out for a few bucks here and there”


1) Where are you from and what did you do before barbering? 

I was born in NY and grew up in Miami. Before becoming a barber, I was a paratrooper in the US Army. 

Did any of your experience as a paratrooper carry over into the barber world? Where did you get your business sense from?  

I think my military experience definitely gave me a good foundation to work off of. It imbued in me a very strong work ethic; an ability to just “get it done”, no matter what. Pair that with an aggressive east coast mentality and you’ve got a recipe for success. 

2) What put you into this profession? 

Ever since high school, I wanted to cut hair. Growing up as a punk rock kid in the ‘80s, I was always the one cutting and coloring everyone’s hair. I’ve always been good with a pair of clippers.

In the Army, I’d bring dudes into the barracks and fade them out for a few bucks here and there, and when I got out, I decided to take it to a professional level. 

3) You're very political with your thoughts and posts on IG, which is something you don't see a lot of barbers doing. Talk about that a bit...

I believe in using whatever resources are at your disposal to affect change in the world. My business is my primary resource and, in this day and age, it’s important that we speak our against injustice, bigotry, racism, etc. They always told me when I became a barber, “never talk politics or religion on the floor”, but fuck that. I’ve never been one to not speak my mind and if customers don’t like it, there are a lot of shops out there adhere to that ‘rule’. Personally, I believe Rooks built its reputation by being real, and I encourage my barbers to be who they are. 

What have been the positive/negative outcomes of your public opinions?  

I’ve lost customers over my public political opinions. I guess you could say that’s a negative. I don’t think it is. I’ve had people “boycott” my bar and other businesses of mine, but I just think they’re funny. You can’t boycott somewhere you’re not welcome.

4) When did the first Rooks open? How were you able to take Rooks from one shop in Portland to having 3 there as well as another in Hood River? 

The first Rooks opened at the beginning of 2009 as a one-chair shop in a little shed attached to a pizza joint. I had worked as a barber for a few years at another shop in town and had built up a large clientele. I took a big chance, opening  up Rooks a half hour away and was fortunate enough to have a lot of clients follow me. The barbering scene hadn’t really hit yet, so nothing like this was happening in Portland. I was the first shop to offer straight razor shaves and booze, and my shop gained recognition pretty quickly. After a couple years at that one-chair shop, I moved a few blocks up the road and opened a three-chair, bringing a couple quality barbers onboard from out of town. I had to hire barbers from California because there were hardly any in Portland. A year later, I added two more chairs. By then, our little shop was constantly busy and we had some really solid barbers. So, a year after that, I decided to try a second shop across town to cater to a larger clientele. A third one went in right in the heart of downtown Portland a couple years after that and the rest is history. We had become a Portland institution and a nationally-known name. The fourth shop opened up a couple years later but, unfortunately, was lost in a building fire. We quickly recovered and expanded to Hood River, Oregon just a year and a half ago, and that’s now our busiest location.

What went through your head when the fire hit? 

My first concern was relocating my barbers so that they’d still have work. I can deal with a little financial blow like that but I didn’t want my barbers to feel that burden. I also immediately began thinking of the way forward. A couple barbers wanted to start a Go Fund Me campaign to help me recoup some of the financial loss but I wasn’t having it. It was my problem to deal with, not everyone else’s. I had to view the experience as an opportunity to grow in a different direction and, ultimately, it enabled me to put time and energy into opening up Hood River.

5) How do you manage all those shops/barbers?

Very poorly.

No, but seriously...I put a lot of stock in my barbers and give them ownership in their shops. My barbers are free to be who they are, manage their own clients, handle their own money, schedule their own breaks, etc. I think the key to a successful shop is keeping your barbers happy. I refuse to treat mine like children. They didn’t pay $20k for barber school to be bossed around and make shit pay. 

6) What do you get into outside the shop? Hobbies, obsessions, etc. 

Business IS my hobby/obsession. I love creating something, building a brand, getting my hands dirty with the buildout process, etc. Outside of Rooks, I also own a pomade brand, a bar and a motorcycle shop. I create businesses based on my hobbies, so I’m never really working; just doing stuff I like.

7) Notable life fuck-up that ended up being a great learning tool? 

Hmmm....I think all fuck-ups should be used as learning tools. 

I tried many businesses over the years before opening Rooks, to no avail. Each time was a valuable lesson; how not to waste money, who not to partner with, etc. 

I fucked up a lot in my life, but I wouldn’t have been in the exact place I am if I hadn’t.


8) Advice for someone who wants to take that first step from being a barber to opening their own shop? 

Every endeavor requires risk. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and take those risks. It’s scary. Putting money down on a lease, going in without really knowing what the outcome will be..it’s serious, and it’ll fuck with your head. Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly. Your business has to be your entire identity, at least in the beginning. Brands don’t build themselves. Don’t be in too much of a rush. Wait until you’ve got several years of experience and a large customer base. Try not to take a loan out, even if it’s from family. You don’t want to start up already in a bunch of debt. Choose your partners wisely and, if possible, don’t have one. Certainly don’t have more than one or you’ll never make money.Make sure you know your brand, but be willing to adapt and progress. Rooks isn’t the same brand that it was when I started and we’re better for it.

Always be true to yourself and don’t compromise. 

Respect your barbers. They’re your most valuable commodity.

And DON’T BE COMPETITIVE. Support other shops and keep open communication with them.

9) Random thoughts on what you do....

I love what I do. Opening Rooks has been the best thing I’ve done for myself and my children.

That doesn’t mean starting a business is the best move for everyone. Some people won’t function in that position, others will flourish. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just as honorable to put in an honest days work as it is to be an entrepreneur. 

Good luck in whatever you do!

Is the barbering community in Portland supportive?  

If I’m being honest...no, I don’t believe it is.

It’s getting there, for sure. But, there are still a lot of shop owners who view each other as competition, and that’s absolutely the wrong mindset to be in.

Portland is saturated with barbershops and could benefit from a stronger sense of community.

Brian Burt

Q&A number 4 in this series with a lot more on the way. This is a great follow up from last week’s post about Poo from Lefty’s Barbershop, as Brian Burt is the guy who originally started Lefty’s back in the day. Since then Brian has sold Lefty’s, started other shops, worked at some, and consulted on others. He’s been around, and to me, always seems like the the most professional of barbers. A guy that holds himself and other barbers to a very high standard. He embraces his less than legal past with no shame and uses it to better his future. Gotta love that.

FYI: These images of Brian were taken when he was cutting at Vinnie’s in Los Angeles. He now owns his own place (Lyle’s Barbershop) in Portland, OR.

Follow Brian on Instagram @lyles_barbershop.

Click here to read the last Q&A with Poo from Lefty’s.

Click here to check out the book.

“It’s not about how many tattoos you have….”

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1) Where are you from and what did you do prior to barber college?

I'm from a small town in Washington State called Puyallup located about 30 miles south of Seattle. Days Before starting barber college I worked in construction part time and was selling and transporting large amounts of marijuana.

Can you tell me more about your time transporting marijuana?

Days before enrolling in barber college, I was a drug mule. I was spending on average 10 to 15 days a month transporting marijuana to other states via Canada. This was in the late 90's early 2000's and it was a big operation, I mean pounds of marijuana would come south of the boarder ( that's a whole other story) and I would fly up to Seattle from San Diego, rent a car, pick up the package, drive to Colorado or wherever and drop it off. Then I'd pick up the money and drive back to San Diego. I'd do this at least 2 times a month. I'd also invest in a couple pounds to distribute around San Diego as well, it was a very lucrative business for a 27 year old but once I hit my 30's the business was slowing down and I was burning out on all the traveling. I started transporting less and started working construction part time but I hated it. I hated getting dirty and being told what to do and the pay was terrible compared to the 8K a month I'd make on a transporting.

Back then I had hair so I was going to the barber shop every week. I was learning and studying the business model of this shop on my visits. And seeing that it’s a cash business and you're your own boss, it looked like my barber was having a good time and loving what he did. So in 2003 I enrolled and never looked back. Actually, I did sell my last 2 ounces of weed while in barber college.

2) You have opened and sold a number of different shops (including Lefty’s in San Diego). What was that process like and what lead you to sell?

Yes, I've opened 3 of my own shops, and consulted 2 other shops. I love the entire  process of building a barbershop. I love walking into a empty space and having a vision of what the finished barber shop is going to look like. Selling or leaving a shop is always bitter sweet.  You know, you've put all your love, energy, blood, sweat and tears into a space, then you’re walking away. But usually there is a nice stack of cash to help you feel better about your decision... lol

2a) What’s it like to see Lefty’s still pumping today as a staple in San Diego?

Man, seeing Lefty's up and running today is an amazing feeling. Knowing that a LOT of our original patrons are still going there today is mind boggling.  I never thought a shop I started would be a thriving business 12 years later. I’m so stoked that it still looks exactly like it did when i opened the doors 12 years ago.

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3) How have you seen your attitude change toward barbering in 15 years?

My attitude really hasn't changed much in the past 15 years as a licensed barber. I’m still hard on myself and my barbers.  I still treat the client like they are the most important person in the room.  I still have major OCD of keeping my work station and shop extremely clean and welcoming. 

Can you talk more specifically about how the OCD plays out as a barber?

My OCD, has always been a struggle. Way before becoming a barber I always kept my car clean, shoes fresh ( wiping them down daily) so it has naturally carried on to my barbering. I dust off my patron at least 20 times during the service and get compliments from customers daily, " Brian, I can go straight back to work after you cut my hair, you never leave hair on me or my neck" lol...  I clean and sanitize my tools after every single service, sometimes during the service as well.  I make sure my barbercide jar is the clearest of blue as well. I used to post this barberside jar rant on IG and it would get a lot of feedback. My biggest pet peeve is a barbercide jar disgustingly full of hair, crammed with combs and a dirty straight razors hanging off the side, it would drive me nuts, lol..

4) After living and cutting in Southern California for so long, why did you leave and open a shop in Portland?  

I moved and opened a barbershop in Portland for a better life. The pace of Portland is a lot slower than other cities I've called home, and that’s better for my sanity. The economy is booming here in Portland.  Portland is a pretty big city but has a small town feel. I also knew with my work ethic and barbering style I could bring something special to Portland.  There aren't a lot of "traditional barbershops" that look, feel and operate like Lyle’s. We are not just another barbershop. We’re a cornerstone to our local community, and we get thanked daily for opening in our neighborhood.

What is it about a smaller city that is better for your sanity?

 The small city vibe is better for me. As I get older i don't like to be around a lot of people. In Portland there's less traffic, more parking, people are little more relaxed, there's a slower pace...I could go on and on.

5) Describe the mental roller coaster of moving to a new place and opening a new shop?

Man, the mental roller coaster is real, lol... upon moving to Portland I knew no one.  I knew maybe 3 local barbers.  I had to build Lyle’s by myself and the help of my wife and a couple childhood friends.  When I opened I didn't have ANY clientele. The whole first month I was a sitting duck 7 days a week 10 hour days. Slowly but surely people started coming by and checking out the shop, then, thank goodness business started to take off.

What do you think lead to the increase in business?

I think we saw an increase in business because Portland doesn't have any shops like Lyle's or have many barbers carrying on the tradition like myself or Kris.  Cruise around Portland sometime and see for yourself. Most of the "barbershops" look like salons or are run like salons. We focus on providing a traditional atmosphere and overall experience rather than giving beer and booze as an incentive. Things are changing around the world. Patrons are sick and tired of the gimmicks. They appreciate that we take pride in what we do and respect tradition. They want to feel like the barber gives a shit about them and the service we are providing. We don't do anything half ass at Lyle's. We not only wear smocks, we wear clean slacks and freshly shined shoes. We don't hide under hats or hoodies. We look our best because we take pride in the authenticity of being a BARBER! Even small details like music choice is carefully picked through out the day to set the ambiance and make everyone feel welcome.

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6) Has the Portland barber community been supportive?

The barber community in Portland is very Supportive. Upon moving here, Rudy from Cowlick Barber Shop helped me out a lot with my licensing. The barber test in Oregon was not easy to pass. Once I was licensed, Sang from Throne let me work for him until I found space to open my own shop. So I’m grateful to have had that support.  Now that I’m open, almost every week a local barber comes in for a cut, shave or to say hi and hangout. I like to say Lyle’s is your barber’s favorite barbershop. Barbers from all over the country have also made a point to come check us out on there visit to Portland.

7) Why do you run your shop the way you do?

In today's barber world I feel the barbershop has lost its roots and authenticity.  8 out of 10 barbershops around the world are looking more like a skate shop or tattoo shop. The barbers are dressed like they are headed to a music festival or something. Me, I was mentored by old ass barbers that had 40 to 50 years of barbering under their belt. So it was embedded into me how a barber should conduct himself, how his business should be run, how his haircut should be executed, how to show respect for the patron, and the most important part, how to provide the patron with best barber service possible. The patron should have the most positive experience possible. It’s making the patron feel at home upon there visit that makes them choose you. It’s not about how many tattoos you have. I could go on and on on this topic. But that’s just a couple of reasons I run Lyle's the way I do.

8) What do you get into outside of the shop?

Outside of work, I like to stay active and hangout with my wife and dog.  As I get older my circle gets smaller. I enjoy cycling, riding my Harley, skateboarding, hiking, exploring Portland's food and bar scene.

9) Thoughts on the IG era of barbering?

My thoughts on the IG era of barbering:  I LOVE IT?! lol ummm.. lets look at the bright side and then the down side. Some of the bright side, IG has opened the doors for so many barbers around the world. It’s connected so many barbers. IG has made it possible to be a successful barber  without even owning or actually working in a barbershop. I personally know a handful of  barbers that work out of their garage or private room or they just do house calls, lol.. It’s crazy to think that that's possible but with IG, it is. The downside we all know and see daily, barbers acting as if they are celebrities, or doing full on photo shoots after EVERY haircut, lol... its actually kinda sad seeing grown men/woman posting their every move, or selling there souls for a $7 can of pomade. I feel I'm lucky to have got into barbering before IG. It’s hard to explain, but before social media ONLY BARBERS WERE FUCK'N WITH BARBERING. Cosmos would never want to become barbers. Little Jimmy living with his mommy and daddy from the suburbs wasn't wanting to become a barber,  there weren't any pomade or scissor salesmen, etc. But IG has opened the door to the barbershop without having to even step into a shop or talking with a old timer about the fundamentals of being a barber.  So I feel IG has given a false reality of what being a barber is really about.

10) Where do you pull inspiration from inside/outside the barber industry?

I find inspiration in barbering from watching new and older barbers. I love seeing a brand new bright eyed bushy tailed barber cutting who respects the trade. They are always so excited and love what they are doing. The veterans are always inspiring to watch. I love going into an old ass barbershop that has an old ass  barber in there, sit back with a bag of popcorn and a soda, and take it all in. Outside of the barber world I draw inspiration from the tattoo world, art world, and the service industry in general.  We all have a very similar business model, we all work with the public, we all have to market ourselves. The more you work the more money you make, so I really like to keep an eye on how they are all moving in there own business worlds.  You can learn so much if you sit back an listen. I'm still always learning.

11) Random thoughts on what you do…

Well, I feel we are all in this trade for the same reason to make money and have fun doing it.   We go to work like every other job out there, but we are apart of something really special.  Its hard to explain to people who have never set foot in a barbershop, but when you walk into a shop that's a well running machine, full of patrons, banter, talc in the air, bay rum spilling onto the floor,  its a special thing. I'm so stoked that after 15 years of cutting hair I still have the passion and love for this trade. Barbering has given me so much, and that's why I try and do my part on keeping the authenticity of barbering going. We owe it to our forefathers that were standing behind the chair putting hair on the floor decades before we were even born. Whether you know it or not, all of us barbers make a huge impact on our patrons lives and our community. So show some fuckin respect to this trade got dammit! 

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Roadtrip

Was back out on the road earlier this month. This time it was up to Canada for a snowboarding trip with a stop in Beaverton for a meeting with Nike. More on that later. About 2 years ago I realized that snowboarding is the only that will take the camera out of my hands. During any other activity I'm happy to watch from the sidelines just so I can shoot. On snowboarding trips though, the camera unfortunately spends too much time in the bag. I'm alright with that.  A weird thing happens on those trips though, because the itch still needs to be scratched. I can't not shoot for any extended amount of time or I turn into a prick. Especially on the road because you see images everywhere, which are hard to pass up. So I start looking for images in other places. Thus the reason for a completely random mash-up of images in this blogpost. 

Hood River, Oregon

This is sort of an extension on another post I made a while back about a road trip from last year. Which started in San Diego, then went all the way up the coast, into Canada (Banff), then down through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and finally back to San Diego. Hood River, Oregon was definitely a notable stop along the way. It's known as the kite surfing and wind surfing capital of the world. We did neither of those things, but it doesn't matter. Hood River has a lot more to offer. Great camping, hiking, food, and beer. Hard to complain about a place that's bookended by Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier. The views are top notch. And we were lucky enough to be there on a few days where the visibility was close to perfect.