This Former Punk Barber Built a Business Empire While Kicking Racists Out of His Shop

by Mo Wilson  |  Jul 2, 2019

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It’s a hallmark of punk style to have a poorly done haircut. From choppy bangs to shaved heads to badly dyed colors, many punks pride themselves on their raggedy hair. Not Justin King. The former east coast hardcore scenester has built an empire with his Rooks barbershops in Portland. He does two very un-punk things, including making money and making people look good, by keeping true to his sense of justice and independent nature.

 

Growing up, King always cut hair for his punk friends as  to make some extra cash while in the military, where buzz cuts were strictly enforced . Eventually, King went to barber school, cutting hair in New York before decamping the more low-key city of Portland.

 

After building up a solid client base for 7 years, the constant hassle of a boss led the former punk to open his own salon. “I didn’t feel like it was fair to be giving half of my income to the owner of that shop. You know, I was doing 100% of the work and the commission was like 50%,” King said. He opened the first Rooks with a 10,000 dollar deposit, a small building of about 300 square feet, attached to a pizza shop.

 

King’s no-nonsense aesthetic, equally influenced by his background as a punk and a soldier, defined what Rooks would be. “I felt like my work should speak for itself and I didn’t really feel like I needed a moose head on the wall or you know, leather and wood everywhere.” Still, he worried that the clientele he had built up at the more lux salon 30 miles outside of Portland wouldn’t carry over, and the 10,000 dollar deposit represented a huge risk for the barber with an already spotty credit record. “If you want to be a leader of industry like you’re going to have to take that risk. But I’d say the initial risk was just you know, not being sure if I was going to open the doors and not have a single person come in,” King said.

 

Fortunately, King never saw that day come. The clients who had come to depend on King’s skill with clippers and his eye for aesthetics made the trek. The barebones style of the new shop attracted more than enough new clients, forcing him to open a new location. Due to his increasing demand, Rooks is now a total of five barbershops across Portland and growing.

 

Owning these barbershops has changed what King thought of as money. “I said if I can make 75 bucks a day, I can keep this thing afloat and that was my comfort level back then… I’d make you know, 30-40 grand a year or whatever. And to me, that seemed like a lot of money.” Now he makes “closer to a couple of hundred grand a year” with his shops generating a million and a half in revenue every year.

 

Like any successful businessman, King started to diversify.  He now makes his own pomade brand Double Dagger, with a matte and regular variety. He did so partly to cut out the middleman of the products servicer, but the greater motivator was considering how his business practices reflected his ideas. “Some companies out there have a history of discriminating against like women or especially discriminating against the gay/trans community, and I refuse to support any of those companies.” King says.

 

If you want to really get to know King , bring up politics and discrimination. For him, the old vanguard of bigoted boy barbershops has to go. “We have gay barbers. We have women barbers. You know even as little as five years ago in Portland barber shops weren’t hiring women or letting women get their hair cut there, and I think it’s ridiculous.”  Ask him for a fond memory of barbering and he’ll bring up the time he’s kicked people out of his chair for making racist remarks about former president Barack Obama or masturbating while a woman barber cut their hair.

 

Those sense of ethics pushed King to open his own restaurant as well. Originally he was looking to open a music venue, something he says Portland needs, but then he found a Craigslist ad for what used to be a beloved Portland brunch spot. Worried that the forces behind “new Portland” would gentrify the space, he bought it and opened Black Heart. He also channeled his love of motorcycles and the scruffy culture they represent into creating a combination bike shop and membership club called the Portland Moto Collective. His knack for branding has led him to some consultant work, although he prefers being behind the scenes instead of giving lectures on stage.

 

In terms of where his money is coming from, King’s primary source of coin is from his barbershops, not his side hustles and speaking gigs. The pomade brings in twenty grand a year, and the bar/restaurant is still in the brand-building phase at a year old. Despite it not being a profit maker, King’s ability to give 13-14 people’s salaries is a source of pride for the man who’s always thinking of how his actions benefit others. The motorcycle shop brings in some money, but he estimates that 80% of his income comes from the barber shops themselves.

 

All of these businesses act as an extension of King himself and channel his respect for individuality. “There’s not a whole lot of rules at Rooks. My rules are like be a grownup, handle your shit, take care of your stuff, and pay me on time. There are no uniforms. There’s no right or wrong way to cut. Schedule your own breaks. If you need a day off, take it.” King says.

 

King doesn’t like to plan ahead too far, but when pressed he admits he plans on opening an NYC barber shop. Until then travel to one of his 5 barbershops across Portland to catch King behind a chair. Just be sure to watch your mouth.

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