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Meet Virginia: Khalil Samad

Khalil Samad is the owner of Hill City Cuts on Alleghany Avenue in Lynchburg. Most of his customers come every week or two for a trim, a fade, a taper, and conversation. You can’t just walk in and get a haircut, though—you need an appointment for that. But, if you call ahead, Samad or one of his barbers is ready.

“If you’re a man you see your barber more than you see your dentist, way more than your doctor, way more than your masseuse, way more than you go to see the person who works on your car, way more than you see some of your own family,” Samad says. “You see your family Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. You know. So, when I say personal, it’s very personal.”

Samad, now 36, learned to cut hair in the early 2000s when he apprenticed under Ralph “Chopper” Wilson, owner of Choppers Barber Shop, a Lynchburg institution that operated for years in a now vacant storefront across the street from Hill City Cuts. Samad says barbering is much the same as when he began learning at ago at age 15, even if the hairstyles have changed. Back then, there were three main styles: The even cut, which Samad describes as “one level all over, shape it up, you’re out the door.” Then there’s the bald fade: “Like military style cut. You bald the sides, keep the top, boom.” And then the bald head. “You bald someone’s head, clean their face, out the door. I mean, it was so simple, common, and easy. Now today? Oh, wow. I get a challenge every day, and I’ve been cutting hair for 20 years.”

“Oh, Mohawks, and frohawks, and, oh, my God, mullets. We get all kinds of hairstyles now,” Samad notes. “All kinds. Some people want parts in their hair, some people say, ‘Don’t comb it, don’t do nothing. Just taper me on the side and shape me up.’ Braids. Dreads. All kinds of stuff. Yep, it’s very different from, very different than ‘back in the day.’”

As a kid, Samad learned by watching and doing. After school, on weekends, wearing khakis, a dress shirt and tie, he’d run errands, clean the floors, organize stockrooms, fill the snack machines—whatever needed doing. For each cut he did, he’d earn $4 plus tips. He’d listen to barbers navigate politics, sports, local government, lunch orders. It was where Samad learned to take cues from the person sitting in his chair.

“A person may literally just want to come get their cut and go. And the next person might want to come get their cut and spill everything out. So, it’s all about the vibe and the energy. So absolutely, for me, I give my customer the floor. You start it off, and we can dialogue.”

He admits that barbering can be hard. The learning curve is steep and customers can sometimes be prickly. The pandemic changed his business, too. The shop became appointment-only in 2020, which has given him more stability and predictability. Samad now has time to have a dog and attend college.

Khalil Samad cuts TJ Andews' hair, while Khalil's dog Lola sits nearby.
Christine Kueter
Khalil Samad cuts TJ Andews' hair, while Khalil's dog Lola sits nearby.

And while he doesn’t see himself growing old behind a barber’s chair, he’s not ready to walk away. Occasionally, he’s taken on an apprentice himself, inspired by the guy who mentored him.

“He himself is like a big tree, you know, you got so many leaves on the tree. He has produced so many barbers like myself throughout the years, and everybody has went off and branched off, and the door that he opened and the opportunities he’s given.”

Each night after work, Samad looks across Allegheny Avenue at the building where he learned to be a barber. It’s dark now, but in his head, the parking lot’s still jammed.

“Often, if you watch ESPN, and they’re interviewing someone who just retired, they say, ‘What is it you miss the most about the game of football? What do you miss about the game of basketball? Is it when you scored 50 points or is it when you ran for five touchdowns? What do you miss?’

“You know what they say? ‘The locker room, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the conversations. The different people that you meet.’ Same thing for the barbershop. The barbershop is the locker room.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.