After three decades of cutting and coloring hair, dispensing advice and helping his clients celebrate myriad events such as high school graduations and weddings, Byron Woods thought he was finished.
Forced in March to temporarily close his three hair salons in Columbus, Ohio, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Woods didn’t see how he could continue paying $5,000 in rent on his empty businesses each month and provide a place to work for 27 other barbers and beauticians.
He was unable to secure a government emergency loan to tide him over when he returned to his Oohs & Ahs barbershop in early May. Feeling defeated, he sat down to open the mail that had piled up during his absence.
In his mail, he found an electric bill, a water bill, and past-due rent notices. There were also several checks, including one from a woman who was a retired schoolteacher. She’d enclosed $1,200 — the amount of her own stimulus payment — along with a message:
“Dear Mr. Woods, today is a happy day for me,” she wrote. “It is a day I've been waiting for. You see, ever since I received my stimulus check from the federal government, I've wanted to give the money to someone who needed it more than I, someone who would use it wisely, someone who was worthy of some help."
“I am so impressed with and thankful for your giving nature, for all you do for others,” she wrote at the end. “And for making ME happy."
Woods said he burst into tears.
“She and the other people who sent donations gave me the inspiration to go forward,” he said. “More than anything, it left me with a feeling of ‘You matter — you’re essential and we need you.’”
And as it turned out, those donations (from people who asked to remain anonymous) were only the beginning.
At around the same time, Woods’ wife, Tenesia Woods, secretly started a GoFundMe for Oohs & Ahs that has now reached more than $21,000.
“When I initially suggested it, Byron shot it down because he was waiting on the government to assist with funding,” she said. “Then we received news that the funding was depleted. I knew the blood, sweat, and tears that he had poured into his businesses — this is what he lives for, what makes him thrive.”
His three shops are now reopened and slowly getting back to normal, he said, as his staff takes precautions such as extensive cleaning, hand sanitizing, and masks.
Steven McElroy is among those who were happy to give a donation to keep Oohs & Ahs in business, then book an appointment for a haircut.
“Oohs & Ahs is a staple in the community, and Byron is an example to young black males on how to be successful in their personal and professional lives,” said McElroy, 56, director of business and operations for Columbus City Schools.
Ruth McNeil, who has known Woods for 25 years, said that from the first time she sat in his barber’s chair, “he’s been getting it right.”
“Byron has established Oohs and Ahs as a family gathering place,” said McNeil, 56. “Generations of families get their hair cut at Byron’s shops. You can share your opinions, your values, and your challenges without judgment.”
Woods never set out to make a living with a pair of scissors and a hair dryer, but in 1990, after a six-year stint in the Army, he decided to follow a friend’s advice and get a barber’s license.
It was a return to his roots, he said.
“My mom was a beautician who worked out of our home, and I was 12 when I started cutting my own hair and my friends’ hair,” said Woods. “I thought of it as a hobby — as something I just did.”
Several years after opening his first barbershop in 1991, Woods said he began teaching inmates at the regional London Correctional Facility the secrets of his trade, encouraging them to become licensed through the prison barbershop while they were serving time.
He has since rented booth space in his shops to numerous people who spent time in prison, he said, hoping to give them “a second chance to make something of their lives."
In 2005, he was shot in a home-invasion robbery in his apartment and nearly died, but he said he wasn’t deterred from continuing what he calls his “barbershop ministry.”
“When I not only came back, but was able to grow my business, I really felt it was a sign for me to help people who had committed crimes to better their lives,” he said.
Today, the mixture of employees and clientele at Oohs and Ahs is a testament to the power of following a dream and not giving up, said Woods.