Just got out of a week in the woods, so I'm a bit late on this post to make it effective at all, but still wanted to talk about it. The San Diego Union Tribune asked me to talk about my barbershop book at the San Diego Festival of Books this past weekend at Liberty Station. Truthfully, until they reached out I didn't even know the festival existed, and wasn't sure what to expect. It turned out great though. All of the panels were in private rooms with about 60 chairs, and every one was sold. I was on the panel with another photographer and the discussion was moderated by a woman from the Tribune. She had some great questions, as did the audience. So all in all it was a fun experience and I hope to do something similar again in the future.
Part 2 of ? in my Q&A series with barbers from the book. This time with Ron Talley of Electric Barbershop in Riverside, CA. Met Ron about two years (?) ago at the shop when they had sort of just opened. He struck me as a very genuine dude. No bullshit. Not the kind of guy who tells people what they want to hear, which I very much appreciate. He's a good person while just being himself. The world needs more of that. Before opening his own shop, he worked at American Barbershop (Corona, CA), Stay Gold (Pomona, CA), El Catrin (Santa Ana, CA), Monty’s (Nashville, TN), and American Vintage in Whittier, CA. You can follow him on IG @ron_talley and the shop @electricbarbershop.
"I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. Didn’t have a car. Drivers license was suspended. Didn’t have a place to stay...."
1) Where are you from and what led you into barbering?
Born in Houston Texas. Moved a lot. We lived in a cabin on the Buffalo River 17 miles outside of my mother’s hometown; Hohenwald, TN. My parents got divorced when I was in grade school. My dad and I moved to Redondo Beach, CA with family then finally settled in Diamond Bar, CA. I was around 11/12 years old & that is when I met my friend and co-owner Roman Ybanez. His brother was one of my first friends that I met when I started school in the neighborhood. Growing up in Southern California was probably the best thing for me. Lots of different cultures and scenes. I was about 19-20 when I first met Dylan Johnson. He was a barber at Hawleywoods Barbershop. That is when I saw something special in Barbering. The conversations, laughs, shit talking, & everyone having a great time. Not because of the shop itself, because of the barbers and the relationships they had with their customers.
I started barber school in Orange, CA at Hair California in 2009. I felt like dropping out the first day of school. I had zero experience in cutting hair and struggled more than most of the students in my class. School was exactly what all of my friends said it was going to be. A lot of youngsters that were there just because mom and dad told them school or work, and people that just weren’t taking it serious. For them it was more of a thing to do. Our instructor was a licensed cosmetologist that just received her barber license. She was great when it came to how to pass your state board test (extremely important) but most of the senior students had more knowledge of men’s cuts & styles. Having zero experience cutting hair made it extremely difficult on top of having a instructor that was almost the same skill level on men’s hair. Most of all, I was just in a bad place. Lots of personal things keeping me down & failure. But failure is the best lesson in my opinion.
1a) Can you expand on "lots of personal things keeping me down...?"
Not a problem my brother. Before finding barbering I worked all sorts of jobs. Construction, retail, maintenance man, motorcycle fabrication... When I was getting in to barber school I was laid off from working construction & the fly shop at Bass Pro. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. Didn’t have a car. Drivers license was suspended. Didn’t have a place to stay. My wife and I were dating at the time. I have no idea what she saw in me. We were living in and out of sketchy hotels and motels during the week and shooting up to my uncles cabin in Crestline on the weekends. Since there was so much going on, and so many things in my life that I had to clean up that I just fucked off as a kid, it was tough. Especially having zero experience cutting hair. My dad let me borrow some money to get in to barber school so quitting was not an option. At the time if you went to school for a trade the gov was offering unemployment. I was definitely lucky that I didn’t have to work and go to school part time. So that and side hustling cutting hair (shot out haircuts), I was able to have a little cash to get my life back in order. We got a tiny duplex in Corona, I got my license, and a bucket of a car. I stayed in school & went to visit my good friend Dylan Johnson to pick his brain and learn as much as possible. Eventually passing my state board test and getting my career started.
2) What did you learn along the way?
The “what not to do’s”. Not to half ass and cut corners. Not just the cleanliness & appearance of the shop. All the tools in the shop; the stations, barber chairs, hot towel cabinets, lather machines, lighting. Literally everything in that place is a tool that makes your job & your barbers jobs easier. That goes for service as well. Longevity is key. How do you expect people to keep coming back if you’re providing terrible service or treating them like trash? Not to disrespect your barbers. You provide a space for your people to grow but keeping in mind that’s all you’re going to have; just a space without barbers. It’s nothing special without the people that work there. Your business will not grow if you don’t allow your barbers to grow. Never tell your barbers “if it wasn’t for me”. The sun doesn’t rise and set in your shop homie. Do not be dishonest with your barbers. At the end of the day we are in one of the oldest trades around. We are here to service people and take care of them. Customers give us the opportunity to make them look good, feel good, and provide for our families. Don’t lose sight of that.
3) Can you talk a little more about the relationship between barber and customer?
This one is another one that gets me pretty fired up! Over the past few years this trade has become extremely popular. Because of that we are seeing a lot of change. Just like anything else you’re going to get some really strange personalities. Barbers that feel like they are doing you the favor. Instead of being humbled and grateful for the amazing opportunities that we have just from cutting hair, they take it for granted and always expect way more. Our customers are the ones putting money in our pockets, food on our tables, & the clothes on our backs. I do not care how bad ass you think you are. How bad ass are you if there’s nobody sitting in your chair? We are blue collared workers. One of the oldest trades period. We provide a service. You should never feel like you’re too good.
4) When we first met, Electric was really new, and I think you guys were still kinda slow? Can you talk about what you've done to grow the business to where it is now? What specifically did you learn at the other shops about what not to do?
Yes! The good ole days! We definitely had our share of slow days! I feel like we’ve grown as a team. Everyone gets involved and we try to move as a unit. Helping one another whenever there is down time with everything. Social media, google, & yelp is huge! Doing our best to keep fresh new content and pushing our customers to leave honest reviews. Hitting the streets and pushing that hand to hand with business cards and flyers. I feel like that is a lost art. So many people are quick to send a DM or an email. We did our absolute best to get out in our community and meet people face to face and spread the gospel of Electric Barbershop. Most of all is just keeping a good vibe in the shop. Making sure everyone is on top of their game. Pushing out solid work with a great attitude, keeping a clean welcoming shop, & making people feel like they are a part of something that is really special.
5) Random thoughts on what you do...
Barbering has given me the opportunity to open a business. It has also given me the opportunity to be an Ambassador with Uppercut Deluxe, some of the best people I’ve worked with in my career. It’s amazing to think you can travel, see new places, & meet new people just from cutting hair. It blows my mind and I feel fortunate and grateful everyday.