In describing her vision for her new hair salon on South King Street in Leesburg's historic district, Sharon Payne finds it easier to say what the place is not.

"It's not like Betty's Beauty Nook," she laughed, making a general reference to old-time beauty shops, where linoleum flooring and eau d'Aqua Net constituted atmosphere.

Payne's store, which opened in August, is no simple parlor. It is a gallery, too, where she envisions herself, her stylists, and the rest of Loudoun's art community sharing their work with each other and the public, perhaps over a glass of fine wine.

The shop itself will be part of the show.

Although it is not yet finished, Payne is on her way to transforming the former antiques store into a venue more likely to be found in downtown Washington than among the various antique shops in Leesburg's historic district.

Payne has done much of the work herself, along with a few friends, to revamp the three-story building she is leasing, including refinishing the old wood floors. The first level has been turned into an expansive reception area, with a large, brightly colored area rug, pink walls and a neon pink, blue and white Hair Sculptors sign hanging in the corner above a 1970s-style love seat adorned with leopard-pattern throw cushions.

In another corner, Payne plans to set up a juice bar, which will serve wine in the evenings when she hosts art receptions.

An old freight elevator, in the process of being restored to workable condition, will carry customers to the second floor for hairstyling and to the yet unfinished third floor, with various treatment rooms for services such as massages and body wraps.

On a recent day, local artist Susan Carney has stopped by to talk to Payne about hanging her paintings. Payne animatedly explains her desire to try some of the latest trends in spa treatment, such as placing warm stones on a person's body for relaxation.

Payne does not expect the gallery aspect of her business to make money; she is doing it out of a personal love of art. And, as owners of themed restaurants have attempted to do, she is trying to draw customers by offering a unique experience, rather than delivering a basic service. The idea of displaying artwork, she said, "goes hand in hand" with haircutting--"where the head is a canvas."

And despite the artsy feel, Payne has created an old-fashioned warmth--using antique dressing tables as hairstylist stands, for example.

"I want people to want to be here and hang out," Payne said.

Payne calls her new digs--she formerly occupied a small space in Market Station--her "empty nester" project, in honor of her second daughter's leaving the house to attend the Art Institute of Chicago on a scholarship. Her customers share her excitement.

"Oh, I love it; it's gorgeous," said Debbie Lickey of the new place. Lickey's family members are longtime customers of Payne's. As Lickey raves about the place, Payne is fussing over 15-year-old Torie Lickey's up-do for this year's homecoming dance at Loudoun County High School.

The new place has helped her attract an increasingly younger crowd. Sara and Katie Higgins, Loudoun County High students, suggested their mother bring them there to get their homecoming haircuts.

"We drive by here a lot," said 16-year-old Katie. "It looked really neat from the outside."

Her mother, Ann, likes the urban edge the shop brings to the historic district.

"Yeah, I like it better than antique stores," Katie agreed.

Casey Harr, 16, who has worked as a receptionist for Payne for more than a year, said the store draws an eclectic crowd.

"You have the farmer people come in with their work clothes and the prissy people," Casey said.

It is not surprising that Payne, a mother of two grown children who could pass as one of them in a slinky black pantsuit, leopard-skin-pattern top and chunky black shoes, draws such a diverse crowd.

Debbie Lickey recalls the store's former digs as "warm and homey" and said this place will be, too. "Any place she has is going to be that way, because that's her personality--you're just so at ease with her," Lickey said.

Payne takes her gift as comfort-giver seriously. Although she hints at a painful past--including fleeing briefly to Los Angeles, where she learned to meditate and to "journal" after a painful episode as a young woman--she is not one to share details. She defies the image of the gossipy hairdresser.

After finishing Torie Lickey's hair and then giving the young girl's friend a French twist, Payne comes downstairs to unwind just as her daughter, Sara, calls to tell her mom about a new art film she's going to see in Chicago called "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack."

Plopping on the love seat to chat (and sit down for the first time all day), she talks about protecting her customers' privacy.

"We don't have a back room," she said. Back rooms--the storage areas that have served as smoking and gossip chambers for hairdressers through the ages--"are trouble," she said, shaking her head and pursing her lips.

She loathes gossip. Payne describes with a look of slight disgust a newspaper reporter who once asked her to pass along occasional tips Payne would overhear.

But Payne talks freely about her favorite memories of her 30 years cutting hair. She laughs thinking about women about to give birth who stop in to have their hair done on the way to the hospital. She also talks about a longtime client whose family asked Payne to style the woman's hair on her burial day.

"I just loved her so much," said Payne of the client, although she admits she was scared to touch her. But when her hand accidentally touched the woman's face, she said, "this peace came over me."

"I love my job," said Payne, who surrounds herself with people who feel the same.

She is picky about whom she hires, but above big-city salon experience and top credentials she prizes one thing in her hires.

"I want a natural smile; the rest I can teach," she said.

CAPTION: Sharon Payne, left, who opened Hair Sculptors on South King Street in August, styles Torie Lickey's hair for her homecoming dance.

CAPTION: Payne, who has been cutting hair for 30 years, and Lickey, a Loudoun County High School student, check out her new hairdo.