The following is a guest post by Nick Harbison. Nick was previously featured on MBSB discussing his transcontinental motorcycle trip.
The Gentleman’s House Barber Shop, Irkutsk, in the Republic of Buryatia, Russia, opened earlier this year. I ducked in for a shave and a drink and ended up chatting with owner Nikita Fedchishin about old fashioned style, old fashioned service, and the challenge of getting Russians to stop drinking straight vodka.
Walking down Decabr’skih Sobitii Street in Irkutsk, Russia, the sign for the Gentleman’s House Barbershop jumps out at you. It’s not its English writing – there are English signs scattered around the city for tourists, it’s the design. It’s Old School Gentleman with a modern design twist thrown in; the moustache and bow tie scream hipster and the martini glass adds a little James Bond. If you have travelled in Siberia and Eastern Russia, you will realise straight away that this is something that doesn’t belong here.
It was interesting. I was interested.
I needed a shave. I went inside.
The heavy wooden door opened onto a landing at the top of a spiral staircase. Old American tunes on the stereo. I think it was Moon River. To my left was the barber shop. Retro wall paper. Antique dresser and mirror against the wall. A roll-out putting green on the polished ﬂoor boards.
As I crossed the landing I could hear ice in a cocktail shaker coming from down the stairs.
That would be the next stop.
At the far end of the barber shop were two old fashioned, plush, leather and chrome barber’s chairs back to back; each with their own window in a rich wood paneled rear wall.
The barber(ess?), Anja, met me with a smile. The greeting was clumsy; it always was in Russia. We established that she spoke as much English as I spoke Russian – none. Luckily sign language for a shave was easy. She put me in the chair.
While I settled in, Anja stuck her head into the ofﬁce, and a couple of moments later a swarthy, smiling, English speaking man emerged. His name was Nick and he was the owner/manager of the place. While Anja prepared me for a shave, Nick and I had a brief chat; about the barbershop; the people who visited; the city. I was intrigued to know about the ideas behind a place like this in a place like Siberia. Anja was ready to start. I asked him if we could grab a beer in the bar afterwards so we could chat some more.
Half an hour later I headed downstairs with a clean shave and a few questions to put to Nick. Moon River had given way to some quiet jazz. There were only a couple of people in the dimly lit bar. They looked solemn, sneaking their mid afternoon drinks while nestled together under the stag’s antlers mounted on the wall. Viktoria, the journalism student barmaid, was just pouring my beer as Nick bounced down the stairs.
We grabbed a seat against the wall decorated with chalk Gentleman’s House Barbershop designs.
Where did the idea for Gentleman’s House Barber Shop come from?
It was my wife’s idea. She was pregnant with my son so she spent a lot of time sitting at home, killing time online. She saw a lot of cocktail bars, and began to read about the cocktail culture that came with it. There’s nothing like this in Irkutsk, so she ﬁrst mentioned the idea of a cocktail bar to me. I’d also been thinking of a barber shop for a while, so we decided to combine ideas.
What were your main influences in the design and style of Gentleman’s House Barber Shop?
This is a hard one to answer, it’s a real mix, a little inﬂuence from here, a little from there. We have deﬁnitely gone for an old fashioned style, but not all American, not all Russian. Those stag’s antlers were my grandfather’s; he was a hunter. Some of the items of furniture in here are Russian antiques.
We also took some inﬂuence from prohibition-era US, not just in the design of the place, but also in our cocktail philosophy. During the prohibition, Americans started to travel to Canada, Mexico, and Cuba to drink. They experimented; they developed homemade drinks.
The bartenders here are constantly learning new cocktails and developing their own. We experiment with unique local ingredients in our drinks. Saagan Dali is a medicinal herb native to Buryatia (the autonomous republic in which Irkutsk lies) and is often used in teas. We infuse vodka with it. In the barbershop we also like to offer a level of service higher than what has come to be expected these days.. It’s an old fashioned level of service.
I haven’t seen anywhere like this in my Russian travels so far. Are you the only establishment of this kind in Irkutsk?
Yes. There are no other cocktail bars in Irkutsk, and deﬁnitely no cocktail bars with a barber shop! This means business for the bar has been slow to begin with. It’s an alien concept so this keeps some people away, but on the ﬂipside, serves to attract the kind of people we want. Curious people who are always looking for something new to try.
Could you describe your target clientele?
I want to have here 25 year old plus professionals. These are the people that want to learn about a new culture in drinking, that is already widely accepted in the rest of the world and even in the bigger cities in Russia.
Do you hope to use Gentleman’s House Barber Shop to start a cultural change in Irkutsk?
Cocktail culture is non-existent in Irkutsk. We are trying to promote it to people, trying to teach people to develop a more complex taste for different drinks. It’s hard in a place like Russia. People here drink cheap vodka straight, and beer. It’s a change that is happening slowly in the big cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow. Eventually it will happen slowly here in Irkutsk also. Upstairs, it’s deﬁnitely not an everyday Russian barbershop. The shop has a unique style and ﬂair and that is reﬂected in the work the girls and guys do. People leave here looking good, and different to other people in the street. So yes, we’re trying to start a taste change, and a style change.. These small changes will lead to a wider cultural change.
Nick Harbison finished school in 2004 and spent a year working in the desert of Central Austrailia. Any time not spent working was spent on the road exploring his home country. A love for travel was discovered that year that still hasn’t waned. Nick now works as a pilot in Papua New Guinea. He is spending the second half of 2014 riding his motorbike from Vladivostok, across Russia, Central Asia and Europe to London.