It was 2011, and Dwight Grant was having an identity crisis. “I was feeling sorry for myself. Should I go back to college? Am I doing something wrong? Then I got a sudden windfall from three years of IRS mistakes and decided to take a two-week vacation.”
But he says he heard a voice crystal clear that told him he could take a vacation anytime; he needed instead to open a shop. “If you accept the gift I gave you … but what was the gift? I looked at my hands and realized I was put on earth to barber. It was my calling to connect with people through hair.”
Grant lives in Centreville and started looking for a space nearby in Leesburg. He knew he needed a place that would be easy for his clients to find. He says the general rule in business is not to ask your clients to go more than 30 miles. But he was looking for the perfect place and all he could find in Leesburg were spaces in places like in a strip mall with no history.
“I knew I would know it when I saw it. I wanted to be careful to find the place that would allow me to provide the kind of service I wanted to provide for a client. I want it cozy, intimate, clean. I’m more into natural beauty than synthetic.”
So he gave his mother a call. She had some connections in Middleburg which he says is a tough place to break into. “At the time I was a single parent with three children under 12 and so I had significant responsibilities to consider. I knew my priority was to be a parent first and work second. They will grow. I won’t get to do this again.”
Grant decided to look for a place to open a barber shop instead of the beauty salon he desired in Middleburg since there were already five beauty salons located there. “Every place I looked there seemed to be a problem. Every landlord I met said they didn’t want a barber shop in their building.” Grant said there were stereotypes at play from that famous movie that Black barber shops were too loud and chaotic. “My mom got upset and defensive and said her son was different but they weren’t willing.”
Grant wanted to be on main street and finally he found a second story space which wasn’t ideal —“900 square feet but I went up the steps and fell in love with it—old pine wood floors, stucco walls, good bones, one side loft, all windows that reflected on the brick.” So he took it and he says in two weeks he had found a bank, bookkeeper, accountant, insurance and two barber chairs. “It usually takes months to get everything in place. He called it the Men’s Grooming Room. “It was supposed to be the quality of a beauty shop but the traditional congenial experience of a barber shop.
“I was about to get $400 chairs but I scrolled at random and found the best $1,500 chairs with some advice that pointed out the chairs were basic and had to be comfortable for everyone.” So he bought the chairs and since then has had every size person sit in them and feel at home.
He said opening the business was very nuanced. People said, “Well, you have a barber shop on the second floor. The Upperville Horse Show is opening — if you can hang on until after that, people will come. Everyone goes to Florida. If you can survive the winter.” But he says plenty of people came, and he never went a day with no income. “I’ve been busy every day.”
Grant says he just put a barber pole outside and a sign board on the sidewalk. “I think men are more spontaneous about getting a haircut than women. I had the Pepsi Cola guy pull in to get a haircut.” He says despite being on the second floor he had an 80-year-old man crippled on one side who would drag himself up the stairs for a cut.
“I’ve done everything from a five-year-old with his first haircut to giving the last haircut on the planet to a customer who passed away the next day. Also some while lying in the coffin.” Grant adds that he is the only one in his salon now who is licensed to give shaves. “I do about 100 a year. I’m providing a personal service, very intimate.” He gets his customers by word of mouth. “I don’t want to work on strangers I have no connection to.”
In 2018 a coincidence made it possible for Grant to find the first floor space he wanted. “I had a customer who had come in a while back and had said to me that it would be nice if the barber shop could be on the first floor.” Then Grant heard of a business that was going to close and a space was becoming available. “It turned out that the landlord was the same person, Dan, who has become his mentor and friend. “I wouldn’t be here without him.“ It worked out on both sides because Kosman wanted a renter who would stay the ages.
As time has passed, Grant says the men go home and tell their wives and children about his service and now he has expanded from a barber shop to a family beauty shop. “I think men in Middleburg have an especially warm feeling about their families.” He says now he has 5,000 unique customers a year with an 80 percent retention.
“Now there are five of us with six chairs, and each stylist has their own make up. We deal with length and texture and meet the client where they are in the chair to translate into a hairstyle that works for them.” He says, “I think how to make the hair on their head make them feel beautiful.” Grant’s two-story business is called Salon Aubrey, named after his daughter, and he is planning to lease the building next door — hopefully next year — to open a small barber school to encourage entrepreneurship.
”I want to encourage young people to know they can overcome obstacles in their professional life. It didn’t stop me.”