Q&A number 6 with barbers from the book. There is so much to like about Al’s Barbershop in Alameda, CA, which is just across the bay from San Francisco. Inside and out, it’s a classic any way you spin it. Love this shop. Al’s still looks and feels authentically from the 50’s despite requiring a remodel before they could reopen the place. Such a small and old school joint that it doesn’t even have a bathroom. Just four walls and four chairs. There is almost a monochromatic feel to the decor and the place just makes you feel comfortable. Maybe it’s a combo of the colors, the light, and the crew? I don’t know, but either way, a very enjoyable place to be in. Joe Pollisky is the owner of it now, and there is a lot to him that doesn’t meet the eye, besides his perfect hair. His answers to my somewhat basic questions are great because they contain so much candid advice and knowledge. A couple weeks ago I was on a road trip up to Portland and made it a point to stop in and see Joe. Was even lucky enough to get time in his chair for a quick beard clean up. Thanks Joe!
Follow the shop on Instagram @als.barbershop or on their website www.alsbarbers.com and Joe @joe.the.barber
“After dozens of shitty, meaningless jobs, it’s nice to know that I’m actually contributing to someone’s image, perception, confidence, and hopefully, success.”
1) Tell me about your life before barbering and what got you into it.
Before becoming a barber I did a little bit of everything. I worked office jobs for about 6-7 years before going to barber school. I hated every day of it. Previous to that, I DJ’d at a really low-rent bikini bar in Lancaster, CA called “Snooky’s.” A close friend of mine was DJing there 5 days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. It was killing his relationship, so he asked me to cover a few of his shifts. The place was owned by alleged Russian mafia connected guys – I speak Russian, so they seemed to take a liking to me, or at the very least trusted me enough to get to work that night. Anyways, that place was a drag. I ended up sleeping with one of the dancers who then got 86’d the next night for being blackout drunk at work. I only did that for about 4-5 months before backsliding into office hell for the next long while. The entire time I was in a few different hardcore punk bands – did a little touring around the US. Unfortunately, not much came of it because I was too concerned with keeping my bullshit cubicle job than actually going out on the road with my closest friends and playing music. That’s probably one of my biggest regrets.
2) Your shop is an Alameda classic that has been around since the 50’s. Talk about how you came to own it, and you’re interest in keeping it (for the most part) the same as it was.
When I moved to Oakland from Los Angeles, I started going to Al’s as a customer. Paul Ehat, a close friend whom eventually became my apprentice (and now fully licensed barber) referred me there. Nick Vlahos was my barber. He and I became friends and after a while he mentioned that he was opening a shop in Oakland sometime soon because Al wasn’t ready to retire or sell the place to him. I started picking his brain about barbering. At the same time, I was also gathering information from Dylan Johnson, a good friend and barber that’s worked all over southern CA. I loved being inside shops, I loved the nostalgia. It just made sense to me – but I had zero skill. It wasn’t until really getting into Nick’s head that I realized the skill can be taught, it’s everything else about barbering that can’t be – the soft skills. I eventually apprenticed for Nick at Temescal Alley Barbershop. After nearly 4 years of working at Temescal, Al was ready to retire and he approached Nick to take the shop over. Nick brought me in along with his partner at Temescal – Brad Roberts.
The place was a wreck. We decided that we definitely needed to replace the lathe and plaster walls and ceiling, so once that was demo’d, the electrical was so outdated and shot, that by code, we had to replace that. Then we realized that some of the studs were dry rotted, so those had to be replaced. Then the floor had asbestos, so that had to be replaced. It took 9 months to make that place look like it did in 1953. It’s clean and simple. I think people appreciate how minimal it is. Barbering is an uncomplicated thing, so there’s no reason why the space should be complicated.
3) Each barbershop has a unique feel and different way of operating. Explain why you run your shop the way you do. How much of your personality do you see in your shop?
I think the shop is everything I want my personality to be. I feel like I constantly over complicate things in my personal life. The shop is my respite where I can’t over complicate even if I try. Al’s is staffed by my friends who see it the same way.
What do you mean when you say that you overcomplicate things?
I tend to think way too far into the future with even the most unimportant things. I overanalyze, worry too much, and I'm always trying to put pieces in motion so I can get an outcome rather than just letting things happen as they may. If you're building a house, that's critical. If you're just trying to plan a fucking weekend away, it's annoying and makes things come to a grinding halt. The barber shop is so simple and linear. Once I got over the nervousness of fucking up a haircut it became all about creating relationships with customers and maintaining a place that the barbers I work with love as much as I do.
4) Barbering has changed so much over the years. What does it mean to you to be a barber?
I think barbering is about building a community. I think what’s changed is that some barbers have put more value on their own image than their customers. In my first year of barbering I can remember specific customers whose hair I really fucked up, but they continued to come back to me. As my skills improved, they didn’t point out how much better they felt their cut was. It was just one long conversation that’s lasted almost 6 years now. Barbering is more about being a friend, a confidante, a counselor, or just a sounding board. After that, sure, a good haircut is a nice thing to give them, too.
5) There is a certain aspect of repetition to being a barber in that you spend a lot of time in the same place with the same people. Explain how you feel about that and what it does to your decisions about time spent outside of the barbershop.
There’s a level of comfort to seeing and standing with the same people every day. Even if they’re friends going into the working relationship, you learn things about them through their conversations with customers that you otherwise wouldn’t have ever known. We hang out outside of the shop more as family than friends. That being said, time away from the shop is extremely valuable. I’ve only recently come to grips with the fact that quality time apart from the shop is necessary. I try to encourage my work family to do the same.
6) Hardest lesson you've learned as a shop owner?
Leading by example isn’t always enough. You want the best for those that work with you and they’ll provide the best to their customers. Occasionally the awkward conversation has to be had so that there’s a shared understanding of how things need to run. I never wanted to be seen as anyone’s “boss.”
7) At the end of a work week, what is it that gives you the most satisfaction?
Pulling the hair splinters out of my hands is pretty satisfying. I think knowing that I made a lot of people feel good about themselves translates over to my own well being. After dozens of shitty, meaningless jobs, it’s nice to know that I’m actually contributing to someone’s image, perception, confidence, and hopefully, success.
8) Advice for someone trying to open their own shop?
Don’t ever put yourself in a place where you think that your customers owe you anything. Remain humble and thankful – provide a great experience and in turn your customers will refer their friends, family, and co-workers. Just be patient and the customers will come.
9) Anything in particular happen at the shop that stands out as a good memory?
I think it was the first day we officially re-opened. It was just me cutting that day, Paul was still an apprentice and hadn’t begun cutting during hours yet. At one point in the day, 4 or 5 customers from my old shop that happened to know one another were all there at the same time, just shooting the shit. It was what I’d imagined that barber shop should be: A place to relax and be amongst friends or at least friendly people.
10) Pet peeves?
Unreal expectations that a customer has for a barber and unreal expectations that a barber has for a customer.
11) If you could only have one tool to do an entire cut, what would it be?
I’m not the best at any cut, but I try my best every day. One tool? That’s tough! If you don’t include comb, It’d be my shears. I think an all over shear cut is something every barber should be proficient at. If the power goes out… fuck it, a nice clean shear cut is the only thing on the menu that day. The great part about it is that you can create a ton of different styles, shapes, and textures with just shears.
13) Where do you plan on being/doing in 10 years? 30 years?
Whether it’s at Al’s, or on a different venture, I hope that I’m healthy and still behind the chair.