An Interview with Dustin Fishbook of the Belmont Barbershop

The Belmont Barbershop is one of Vancouver’s men’s grooming staples, behind which are the efforts of founder and master barber Dustin Fishbook. Dustin has been involved in a couple of similar initiatives including the recently closed Mr Lee’s General Store, and we’re hopeful he’ll have a lot more to give not just Vancouver – and Montreal – in the years to come. We recently sat down with Dustin over coffee to discuss the Belmont Barbershop and his hopes and dreams. The transcript follows.

The Facing Page: First off – can you explain a little bit of the history behind the Belmont Barbershop?

Dustin Fishbook: When I was in school for barbering we had to put together a shop; our instructor wanted to make sure that should we choose to open our own shop, we’d be fine. So we went through the whole process of starting a store. When I got out of school I decided that I wanted to cut my teeth in an established store, get some experience and build my customer base, and then I eventually expanded to open up Belmont here.

TFP: So it was just you at first?

DF: Rich came about three years ago, he was a customer first then expressed an interest in learning because he wanted to get out of serving and get into this. We went out, we had a conversation and I decided to take him on as an apprecntice.

TFP: So he had no formal training before that?

DF: None.

TFP: Right, so you obviously did – was barbering something you always wanted to do?

DF: Before this I was painting cars professionally, I didn’t like that career so I wanted to come up with something, a different avenue from which I could not only create an income but furthermore do something I was interested in. The whole idea came about because I was subscribed to a hot-rodding magazine at the time that did an article about a small barbershop in California and I read it. I was like, “I can do that!”. That was my inspiration. I spent the next year and a half trying to find education, or an apprenticeship, and ended up going to Malspina college which had the last real barbershop program in the country. A few more have popped up since, but I don’t think that curriculum has been matched.

TFP: You’ve just brought in a couple more apprentices now, so can you explain a bit the expansion thats happening?

DF: For me, expansion equals a bit more free time. By bringing in more individuals it will allow me to spend more time doing things outside the store. So I’m definitely interested in expansion to a particular degree but this shop can only hold so many people because of the square footage and electrical capacity. And outside of that – I’m not interested. I don’t want to have a second shop in Vancouver, should this lease here ever fall through I’d have to consider moving, and at that point I’d probably want more square footage to potentially add a couple chairs and really just have a better facility for us. Have a bigger backroom, more storage, a shower, things like that. Just to supply a better work environment. Outside of that I’m considering opening up a store in Montreal and doing this all over again. Montreal is a city that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a couple of times in this last year. I think Montreal is in a spot right now where Vancouver was in six years ago. There’s still things that need to get done, and it’s still preliminary, but I’d hope that this time next year I might be starting up in Montreal. Before I’d do that though, I’d want to make sure that this location was in such a position that it could sustain itself, prosper and produce the same quality. I’m working very hard right now to make sure this is the case so that I’ll be able to move on to Montreal.

TFP: So on that note, you started five years ago with a very small clientele list and you’ve grown into a position where you have to call a week or so in advance to even get a cut.

DF: We’ve constantly faced a particular issue with actually being able to meet the demand that is coming in. So again, part of the point of having the apprentices and the like is just to meet the needs. All I’m trying to do is accomodate my customers. Its been nice to have the growth, but its almost as much a curse as a blessing because we just can’t fit it all in.

TFP: What do you think about the ‘barber scene’ here in Vancouver that’s been sprouting up recently. There’s been a lot of branding towards to old fashioned barber, but to me you guys are one of a few who really have the barbershop concept right.

DF: Man, what we do here is, that I think is different from a number of other places, is that I have a really high expectation of quality from my people and myself. I’m not willing to sacrifice any quality for more customers or anything. We take our time. We produce a high quality result and I think because of that people keep coming back through our doors. In terms of our aesthetic, if I chose to have this shop with a painted ice-rink on the floor and hockey paraphenalia everywhere and banners and team shit, it would not reflect on the business as any less of a barbershop than what we have now. The barbershop is the barber’s shop. So it’s a direct reflection of the individual. This is a direct reflection of me, the aesthetic that I appreciate. But it wouldn’t be any less of a shop if the aesthetic were really far out. If it were on the opposite end of the scale even. I’ll shake the hand of any man or woman that is producing high quality work in whatever physical space they choose. Sure – I think there’s a trend toward the old-time sort of shit, but I think you can package anything. We offer a genuine environment and service here, it wouldn’t matter if this was neon pink with polka dots – sure it wouldn’t attract the same clientele from the start, but what I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be any less of a barbershop than it is now. This is a reflection of what I’m interested in. This is not a trend driven space. It has grown though, from day one to now, it has grown and evolved. It didn’t used to have the tiles on the walls, it didn’t have the sink in the corner, that Elk Head was given to me by a customer. It’s important that your space grows with you and your customer-base and I personally think that a space should always be evolving with the individual. A space should never be finished. That’s my idea of the aesthetic.

TFP: Have you ever done any advertising or has it all grown purely off of word of mouth?

DF: We’ve done no advertising in the traditional sense, it’s all been word of mouth. I want to attribute that word of mouth to the quality of work and the effort we’ve put in. Some of it might be that it’s cool or whatever, but I think what has happened in last year or two with the development of the barber scene in Vancouver is that due to things like the internet people are now concious of barbershops again. Theres just more of a demand for it now. Maybe subconciously it’s starting to come back to the forefront. People may be noticing the shop now while they wouldn’t have in past years. It’s fantastic for all barbershops, and yeah, as a result you’re seeing a ton of new places popping up now. I’ve seen so much growth here over the last few years since we started. I really haven’t done any advertising to push that though, we just have the name on the window. We’ve had a little coverage from media, not a lot but we’ve had a few small articles, Inventory did a little piece on us and things of that nature. I wouldn’t pay money to put out an advert though. It maybe would hurt our process until we could accomodate more people. To speak on that, that’s a part of the reason I haven’t advertised. I started as just me, and the amount of people coming in the door alone was enough. The growth period has been steep. Getting in more people from advertising wouldn’t have done much good.

TFP: You mention people come in just walking by, to me the store is a little bit out of the way, is this something you chose consciously or was it just really the space?

DF: It’s just what came up in the timeframe I was looking to setup in. It came up, it was affordable, and the space was really good. When I came into the space for the very first time it did feel right. You know? I just went for it and five years later here it is. Five years later and I still don’t have a sign. One of my friends is making one now: again, its a step in our evolution.

TFP: Mr Lee’s closed this summer, much to our sorrow. Is that something you were invovled in as well?

DF: That was me and a partner. We had our three-year stint and then we had to take a look at the directions we wanted to go in in our lives. We had to take a look at the efforts we were putting in and, simply put, we came to a conclusion that we wanted to free up a little more time in our lives. Over the last year we geared it down, we knew the lease was coming up, and we just didn’t care to renew it. So for us it was a project that we did, we had fun doing, but now it’s time to move on and concentrate on other areas. There was never the thought of “oh this isn’t making money” or anything, it was more about just moving forward as people and the directions we wanted to go in. My partner is looking to move away from Vancouver as well, it was just the right time.

TFP: It’s a relief to know you’re at least continuing to stock some of the products from Mr. Lee’s down here. [Proraso, Baxter, Mast Brothers and a couple of other brands are still sold at the Belmont.]

DF: They started down here, got put up there, and now they’re back down here. Completeing the circle.

TFP: Perfect. Thanks for sitting down and taking the time and for the excellent coffee, Dustin. We look forward to seeing where things go from here.

You can book your own visit to the Belmont here.

– CK | AP

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