An Exclusive Look: In-demand Eau Claire barber edges into limelight

Nickolas Butler, photos by Andrea Paulseth

A LITTLE OFF THE TOP. Without advertising or an online presence, Dustin Price has built a loyal clientele for Exclusive Barbershop primarily through word of mouth.
A LITTLE OFF THE TOP. Without advertising or an online presence, Dustin Price has built a loyal clientele for Exclusive Barbershop primarily through word of mouth.

Dustin Price grips my head firmly with his left hand, while in his right hand, a razor shapes my hairline just so. His beard is immense, Jeremiah Johnson big, and his eyes are intense. A dip of Kodiak pooches his lower lip, and from time to time he edges away from the chair where I’m sitting to appraise my hair, his work. Then he swings back in. Rap music thumps softly in the background. There’s a hustle and flow to his shop, a certain at-ease swagger. At 6:30, after 45 minutes or so, we depart ways. Dustin has been cutting hair since about 8 that morning. I believe him, because the clipper he used to fade my hair was a little bit hot against my scalp, and he told me he’d already swapped out two other clippers that day.

“I just want good people in my chair. I’ll never hire anyone else. I’m in this because of the personal relationships I build with people – the one-on-one.” – Dustin Price, proprietor of Exclusive Barbershop

Price, 31, is a man in demand (his clients travel from as far as Chicago, Minneapolis, and even Toronto), though you’d never know it by perusing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of the other ubiquitous social media platforms of our day. He’s an old-school, word-of-mouth kind of guy, whose appointment book is just that – a wide-paged calendar book. His shop has no signage, no website, no online reviews that I could find. Exclusive Barbershop (it opened in July 2013 in a different location) occupies a tiny suite in East Ridge Center, in a quiet back eddy of the building. His door is tinted black and sometimes locked. Inside the shop, there isn’t much to see. A plain tiled floor, two barber chairs, a mini-refrigerator, a reception desk (Price is also the receptionist), a bank of three chairs against a wall of windows – there isn’t even a spray of glossy magazines or a lonely houseplant. And yet, he’s building a legion of fiercely dedicated clients who file into his shop all day long, five, sometimes six days a week.

“I just want good people in my chair,” he says. “I’ll never hire anyone else. I’m in this because of the personal relationships I build with people – the one-on-one.”
On a summer afternoon I’m sitting at Exclusive, peppering Price with questions, when he sees a young man walking toward the shop. Price says, “Dude shaved his beard off.”

Sure enough, the client enters the barbershop sheepishly, rubbing at a newly pruned jawline, a chagrinned smile on his face. Barber and client rib each other for a few minutes before Price moves into action, automatically swooping into his work. The client never says a word about what style he wants or the previous haircut. Everything is in syncopation, everything unspoken.  

After a while, the client, who looks like a burly Wisconsin version of Bryce Harper (All-Star/MVP Washington National bad-boy) says to me, “It’s the only thing I do to pamper myself. I don’t get my nails done. I don’t go out drinking. I get my hair cut every other week by a great guy, and that’s it.”

It’s true that Price is charismatic. A Wisconsin native (Price grew up in Cadott), he has a mellow loopy cadence to his speech and frequently deadpans a joke. His words are muffled by a thick brown walrus mustache. If he were a bartender, you could stay glued to the rail all afternoon and into the evening, idly chit-chatting. He doesn’t advertise it (he doesn’t advertise anything), but he’s an Army veteran who found a new lease on life when he discovered he not only enjoyed cutting people’s hair, but that he was damn good at it, too.

“Perfecting hair became his medication,” his partner Jinnea says. “Nothing would take the edge off but cutting hair and cleaning his shop. But most men coming back can’t figure it out. Can’t fit in.”

Watching Price cut hair, watching him fade, a person can easily imagine the Zen in it all, like fixing a motorcycle engine, or planing a piece of wood – building fine furniture, a boat, a guitar – the margin of error is non-existent. But when asked why he chose this career path instead of say, woodworking, or some other precision trade, Price doggedly returns to the relationships he builds with his stable of clients, which is also utterly intuitive. The finely crafted chair does not, cannot compliment its maker.

Price has created a special environment with his Exclusive Barber Shop, and the kind of business atmosphere that is becoming more and more common in the Chippewa Valley every day. Craftsmanship combined with a sense of community. Good people seeking good people – like water finding water.