Mekala Seme Mekala Seme
Intern, Communications


November 21, 2023


For local Washington, D.C., business Urban Dwell, support during the holidays means everything. The shop participates in Black Friday and Shop Small Saturday and offers a variety of discounts on holiday cards, ornaments, and candles.  

As the holiday season approaches, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's annual Shop Small Campaign is encouraging shoppers to support local businesses on Small Business Saturday on Nov. 25 and throughout the holiday season. Urban Dwell is among the local businesses included in the U.S. Chamber’s Shop Small Guide. 

“The fourth quarter is our busiest quarter, about 25% of our business is done during the fourth quarter,” said Tom McMahon, Urban Dwell owner and founder. 

McMahon decided to open the boutique gift shop in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood after he retired as an intelligence officer from the U.S. Air Force in 2014 with 22 years of active service. 

He says at the time he knew nothing about running a business.

But the retired Lieutenant Colonel knew he didn’t want to work in government like many DC-area veterans do. In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 22.9% of U.S. veterans work in government. For McMahon, working in government did not present the flexibility he needed to be able to care for his 9-month-old daughter and growing family. So, McMahon began looking into opening a business.  

Urban Dwell opened its doors in 2015 and has made its mark as a premier gift shop with an array of carefully curated artisan merchandise ranging from kitchen and homewares to children's toys and trinkets. The shop began with the guidance of McMahon's sisters-in-law, who each own stores in New York and Philadelphia, and Richard Rose, his mentor at SCORE, a business mentorship program and resource partner for the Small Business Administration (SBA).    

Transitioning from Military Service to Business Owner 

McMahon’s first introduction to the business world began while he was still an Intelligence Officer for the Air Force. During his active duty, the military organized seminars with the SBA, where McMahon began to learn about entrepreneurship.   

After leaving the Air Force, McMahon’s sisters-in-law took him under their wing and taught him the ins and outs of owning a business.   

“My wife has two sisters in New York and Philadelphia, and they were like ‘We’ve been doing this for 15 years, we’ll show you how to run this stuff,’” said McMahon. 

At first, starting a business was intimidating for McMahon, but with the help of his SCORE mentor and after helping his sisters-in-law at their stores, he quickly realized the skills he acquired on active duty applied to his position as a business owner. 

“I was helping Special Forces hunt terrorists around the world and had never worked retail before, so it was a little daunting to think about,” said McMahon. “But then as I got into it more, I realized a lot of the military skills I gained over the years transcended into project management, people skills, leadership, multitasking – all kinds of skills that were able to help me stay organized.”  

Urban Dwell’s mission, inspired by McMahon’s travel experiences while on active duty, is to provide gifts for anyone regardless of age or the occasion. The fun and trendy shop offers unique gifts you can’t find anywhere else.   

An array of kitchen supplies and décor at Urban Dwell. (Photo by Mekala Seme)
An array of kitchen supplies and décor at Urban Dwell. (Photo by Mekala Seme)

Becoming Part of the Community  

The gift shop sits at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road in Northwest D.C. When McMahon’s SCORE mentor connected him to a leasing agent who recommended owning a shop in Adams Morgan, he never anticipated the foot traffic his shop would receive. McMahon knew Adams Morgan was popular for its range of bars and restaurants, but he underestimated how quickly his shop would be embraced by the tight-knit community.  

“Within two or three weeks, I had at least four to five people walking into the store and saying, ‘We deserve a store like this, we love it,’ and from that moment on, I felt like I was a part of the community,” said McMahon. "They really just embraced us from the beginning, and I never once felt like an outsider.”  

Pivoting During the Pandemic  

The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for small businesses across the country, but the local community continued to keep the store afloat. During the pandemic, Urban Dwell received support from the local community and implemented creative sales techniques to continue to foster relationships with customers. The gift shop created its version of “take-out” by creating a numbered window display of products customers could order.   

“The outpour [of support] was amazing," said McMahon. “We actually made enough to make rent that way, so it was pretty cool.”  

McMahon is thankful for the support his shop receives and continues to nurture a relationship with his community by giving back and partnering with businesses and schools in the area.    

“I just want to say thank you to the customers who continue to support us,” McMahon said. “I get hit up by developers probably once a month if not more to expand and I have no interest in that because that’s not what shopping small means to me.” 

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Mekala Seme

Mekala Seme