The Bootstrappers

Firefighter Damon Robertson and his wife, Sweet Asylum salon owner Julia, can handle just about anything that needs handling.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SMEETA MAHANTI

On first impression, Damon and Julia Robertson seem like polar opposites. Damon, 37, is 6-foot-4 and a bit stoic—imposing physical characteristics reinforced by his job as a firefighter and a work history that includes Special Forces training and a seven-month tour in Iraq as a Marine Reservist. With her pink-tipped blond hair and explosive belly laugh, his wife, salon owner Julia, 32, is his sunny foil.

But Julia is as tough as her husband, especially when she’s leading construction projects at her home and business. The couple approach their goals with a rugged determination, and have pulled off some impressive feats in the last three years, including launching two new careers, buying a home in a suburb of one of the most expensive cities in the world, and becoming new parents to their four-month old daughter, Søren. Chalk it all up to the fact that whatever in their lives needs doing, this pair gets further by doing it themselves.

Julia Robertson and Damon Robertson at Sweet Asylum

Søren, Julia, Damon, and their dog Judah in the backyard of Julia’s salon, Sweet Asylum, in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood.

“You know, we both grew up really poor,” Julia says. “I would go to bed in my snowsuit sometimes because my parents couldn’t afford heat. And Damon’s mom was this amazing single mother who just always found a way—he remembers eating cereal with water. We really know how to live on a budget.”

Julia worked construction in her dad’s business during high school, and when she struck out on her own and founded Sweet Asylum, her salon in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood, in 2011, he helped her redo the place. The new, more private layout and charming vintage details like wainscoting and Edison-bulb sconces are all Julia.

Starting around the same time, Damon was studying to join the San Francisco Fire Department, which at the time took applications only once every several years. Less than one percent of recruits who sat for the exam were invited to join the fire academy, and Damon made the cut.

On Damon’s calming effect Damon's way better at not getting emotionally charged when she's melting down. I tend to cave more easily when she's crying herself to sleep so Damon actually sets a timer. Most of the time, she cries less than three minutes.—Julia

Salvage was the name of the game during the renovation of Sweet Asylum. She sourced vintage items, such as the card catalogs and paned window in this salon treatment room, to add eclectic charm to  her space.

With two careers locked down, the couple, who married in 2009 in a backyard ceremony attended by only their parents, a sibling, the minister and their friend who photographed it, turned their attention toward buying a home. At the time, they were living with three other roommates in an apartment in the Lower Haight. “It made life complicated, but put us in a good situation financially when we were actually ready to leave,” Julia says. “And knowing that we wanted to have children, choosing a destination with good public schools was a big deciding factor as well.”

Julia and Damon settled on a compact two-bedroom on a quiet dead-end street in Petaluma. “It was a major sad-pants house,” says Julia. But with a black belt in construction, she transformed the dated bathroom and small, awkward front rooms into an airy, light-filled home that could welcome a growing family.

“My wife is way more handy than I am,” Damon says. “We originally had a contractor, but he dragged his feet for six months and budgeted out a $100,000 remodel, and we just didn’t have the money.” They fired him, and Julia took on the job, Photoshopping blueprints and getting their permits approved. As the walls started to come down, she and Damon lived in their in-law apartment, and got help from Julia’s dad once or twice when he drove out from her hometown of Reno to help with the remodeling. “He’s sort of a mountain man, so he camped in the house while it was still a construction site,” Damon says. “He brought an air mattress and a sleeping bag.”

Together, the trio built out the new designs, redoing the kitchen, bathroom and living room of the 850-square-foot home. “The entire process took maybe a year, and we did the whole thing for less than $40,000,” Julia says. “Which is miraculous, because that’s normally what it costs to do a kitchen remodel. But that’s what happens when you build your own cabinets and do every single stitch of the floors and tile yourself.”

Julia Robertson in Sweet Asylum

Søren, Julia and Judah hold court in the main room of Julia’s salon, which she renovated with her modern take on traditional Victorian elements.

The end result is a cozy nest for their small family, and they say they couldn’t have picked a better place to put down roots for Søren. They know every single person on their tight-knit block—including the pot-growing piano teacher across the street, the violin- and cello-makers who are rumored to build instruments for Yo-Yo Ma, and their 95-year-old neighbor who still walks a mile and a half each day to the market and back. “It’s paradise,” says Julia. “I don’t know how I ever lived without community.” It’s also a far cry from their former lives in San Francisco, where they barely knew the people in their building.

Søren benefits the most, as everyone on their street is infatuated with her, and neighbors are quick to pitch in with meals and babysitting when the new parents need a break. Damon’s firehouse schedule consists of 24-hour shifts with 48-hour breaks in between, so for an entire day and night at a time, Julia is the sole caregiver. But overall, the pair splits parenting duties down the middle—though Julia edges Damon out when it comes to nursing. Damon also takes over two days per week when Julia has appointments at her salon, having backed off her former schedule of four days per week.

Dropping her hours has made money a bit tighter around the house, especially with a new baby, but it allows Julia and Damon time to be together as a family with Søren, rather than passing her off from one parent to the other each day. A smart budget is par for the course for this couple, and is a small price to pay for the extra time they carve out to enjoy Soren’s first few months.