Q10: Albert Kamba: Building Community

Photos by Olga Zamudio advertisement Passing along Twelfth Street, you may not notice Salon Elegant, particularly if you’re not in need of barbering services. But there’s more going on behind the black awning than one would initially guess. If you venture inside, you’ll find a lively space where you might feel drawn to sit downRead More

Photos by Olga Zamudio

Passing along Twelfth Street, you may not notice Salon Elegant, particularly if you’re not in need of barbering services. But there’s more going on behind the black awning than one would initially guess. If you venture inside, you’ll find a lively space where you might feel drawn to sit down and hang out for a while. Albert Kamba, who runs the shop, is passionately building something of a community centre, a place where youth can be trained in the art of barbering.

There’s plenty of turnover along that strip of Twelfth Street and many shuttered businesses surround the salon, yet his business is clearly thriving.

Salon Elegant opened in 2006 as a two-chair service before expanding to the current location. Albert has a fascinating life story that includes life in the Congo and travels in Europe before becoming a one-handed barber after a car accident. There must be many stories to be told about these adventures, yet what really lights him up is talking about training young men and women. He’s surprised to hear that people have heard his story.

About eight years ago, he began by training his nephew who lived in his community. After finishing high school, the man was unsure what he wanted to do. College didn’t seem like the right fit. Albert took him in and taught him the trade. He says that young men need to be helped, they need guidance to find their way. It’s training and mentorship.

Albert calls barbering a noble job: “You meet everyone—lawyers, bus drivers, politicians…You get to know them. You help them.”

And not just with their hair. Albert tells of connecting people who need a ride from the airport and helping families who are moving. When you become a customer, you become a community member.

A visit to the salon shows the truth in his words. At 10:30am, before the salon even opens, people start to flood in. They perch comfortably in the hairdressing chairs and lounge on the couches. Albert says they often don’t want to leave after they get their haircut and hang out to continue the conversations. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed. He often adds little extras to the salon like TVs showing sports or hosting special parties. The salon is in constant flux, and this keeps it interesting.

Albert casually mentions that he’s a pretty superb barber, and there’s no reason to doubt his words. Customers flock to the salon from all over the Lower Mainland. He thinks Chilliwack, Surrey, and Maple Ridge need more barbers. He hopes that the youth he trains can one day franchise the salon to diverse locations.

“It’s not about making a million,” Albert says. “It’s about providing the service.”  

He emphasizes people from all different backgrounds come to the salon. His most recent trainee is a young woman from Vietnam. She’s already been working with him over eight months. Albert emphasizes the length of time his trainees stay with him repeatedly—eight years, six years, four years…They don’t take his training and leave, but stay on as staff and continue to work in the salon. They enjoy the lifestyle, he says, as well as the trade.

Relationships are clearly what Salon Elegant is all about. He speaks about his customers’ loyalty. They often hear about him by word-of-mouth and, he openly acknowledges, a one-handed barber is something of a novelty. But once they have their hair cut by him or one of his trainees they are hooked and become regulars.

“New Westminster made me who I am,” he says, without a hint of hesitation.

Clearly a man of ambition and vision, what is next for Albert? He has his answer at the ready: a barbering school. He has many young people requesting to learn from him and he’s not equipped to deal with the large number of requests. Without any formal or informal advertising, how do people find out about his low-key training program? Word of mouth, of course. The trainees tell their friends and those friends come to Albert requesting to be trained by him. He wants to take them all in, especially since there’s such a need for quality barbering services, but to do so he needs a formal school.

It seems obvious: the demand for quality barbers matches elegantly with the demand for his training. He can pass on what he knows about creating a strong relationship with customers and about cutting their hair just right.

The school isn’t currently in the works, but the idea is percolating. In the meantime, there are youth to be trained, the salon to be run, people to be helped with the day-to-day activities of their lives. And always hair to be cut.

Need a haircut? Check out Salon Elegant at 806 Twelfth Street or at salon-elegant.com.

Nadine Nakagawa

Nadine Nakagawa is a community builder, a creative writer, a feminist, and an idealist. She loves spring-time flowers, a new notebook, and politics. Still operating on Island-time, she lives in Brow of the Hill area of New Westminster. You can find her eating vegan meals at local restaurants and walking her golden retriever Gus around the uptown area. Follow her #ilovenewwest series on Instagram and Twitter.

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