by Marjorie L. Share
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came…
…You want to go where everybody knows your name.”
The lyrics are the theme song for Cheers, the award-winning American TV series that began in 1982 and ran for 11 seasons. It was based on a real place, a home away from home for a group of Boston locals who met to eat, relax and socialize.
Forest Hills neighbors and beyond express the same about Leo Nguyen’s barber shop at 4481 Connecticut Avenue.
On Saturday mornings at Leo’s (the name everyone seems to use, although its official name is “Cut ‘n Edge”), there are no empty seats to be found. All six cutters are at work and every chair is filled. The 8 chairs in the waiting area often give way to standing room only. Children, families, and women and men of all ages come for a cut and at the same time greet old and new friends, pick-up a free lollipop or cup of coffee (served in an eco-friendly cup) and perhaps some neighborhood tidbits. Leo knows everyone by name.
“Cut ‘n Edge” is what urban planners call a “third place,” a Cheers-like place that is not home (the ﬁrst place) nor work (the second), where community and commerce blend. A place where you are asked about your day, and made to feel, well… right at home. Itʼs a win-win.
Marjorie Share: Why did you choose this neighborhood?
Leo Nguyen: We have been here nine years, and I love it here. It is such a friendly neighborhood. I remember your son (he calls him by name) when he was in high school. He used to stop by just to say hi. This is a wonderful location for us. It’s difﬁcult now because the sidewalk is closed for construction. Apart from the one neighbor who doesnʼt keep things clean, itʼs ideal. I wish they would be neater.
There is Metro; people read about us and come from all over, as far away as Frederick. We also get a lot of customers from the Franklin Montessori School next door. Parents or caregivers see us when they drop off children, try us out, and keep coming back.
And word travels. (I commented on the rave reviews on Yelp.) That helps a lot. Out-of-towners read about us, and give us a try. Sure, I hope the large building with the hundreds of new apartments will bring business – but itʼs a long ways off. Edmund Burke School, American University and Fannie Mae yield loads of loyal customers. Even GW.
MS: Did you come here because of Tony? (Tonyʼs Barbershop is directly across the street at 4444 Connecticut.)
LN: No, I didnʼt even know Tony was here, and I didnʼt know him when he and Camillo were partners. Tony came here, and I went to work at Camilloʼs, where I had been working for three years when my sister-in-law learned from the owner of this building that he was looking for a new tenant. Lynn and I thought we would give it a try. (Lynn Loung is Leo’s older brotherʼs wife.)
We are responsible for everything. If the air conditioning breaks, we pay to ﬁx it. All upgrades are our responsibility.
MS: When did you come to the United States?
LN: I came when I was 10. It was 1981 and our family was living in a small village 45 minutes outside Nha Trang (a coastal city on the south central coast of Vietnam, now known for its beaches and tourist destination). I couldnʼt read or write English or Vietnamese when I arrived. In Vietnam, you begin working at a very young age. There was no school where I lived, and my parents worked on a ﬁshing boat, and themselves didnʼt know how to read or write very well. We lived in a small house on the beach. I was the youngest in the family, with three brothers and one sister. My brother left two years earlier, in 1979, and went to Canada.
Our family made secret arrangements to leave Vietnam. Life there was very hard, and we were looking for freedom. We had a relative in Akron, Ohio, who sponsored us. We went by boat to Singapore, where we spent eight months. We were deciding whether to go to the U.S. or Canada. From Akron, we moved to Washington.
Leo went to barber school in 1989 in Wheaton, while in his junior year at Montgomery Blair High School. He went to school after classes.
MS: Do you have your own family?
LN: I live in Virginia with my wife and two children. I used to take my wife on dates to the Chinese restaurant that was just torn down next door. Itʼs a shame. We went there in 1991-92 (Leo opened his doors in 2004). We need more good restaurants in the area now. I am looking forward to Bread Furstʼs opening across the street. We need a good bakery, something different from the sub and burger places.
A customer walks in. Leo calls him by name and tells him he will be with him shortly. He doesnʼt rush me but I notice the shop beginning to ﬁll.
“When is the best time for people to come if they donʼt want to wait?” I ask.
With a glint in his eye (always), he tells me, “Monday through Thursday, 9-5. But, come in anytime and weʼll always make it work.” And he does.