A Smart Read

Screen Shot 2017 01 11 At 1 16 17 Pm


Fact No. 1: In African-American communities across the U.S., barbershops are cultural hubs as much as—or even more than— they are grooming establishments. Fact No. 2: According to the Department of Education, 85 percent of America’s black male fourth graders are not proficient in reading, greatly increasing their risk of dropping out of high school. Fact No. 3: Young black boys will read books that they find fun, funny or interesting.

While getting a haircut in a barbershop across the street from the school where he taught first grade in New York City, award- winning educator and comedian Alvin Irby considered these three facts. That day, he decided that barbershops presented a golden opportunity for his young male students.

Irby thought, “Anywhere in the U.S. where there are black people, there are black barbershops, there are little black boys waiting to get their hair cut... Someone should put books in barbershops so boys can have something fun to read while they wait.” A few years later, he founded Barbershop Books, a literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops. The idea is simple: Community members sponsor a reading space (fun books and a colorful bookshelf) in their local barbershop. Barbers encourage young patrons and their parents to use the books. Children and parents look at and read the books while they wait or choose one to bring to the barber chair.

The Barbershop Books program has reading spaces in a dozen New York City barbershops; 10 in Columbus, Ohio; and 22 in other barbershops across the U.S. Every dollar invested in a Barbershop Books reading space generates 27 minutes of reading in a barbershop. When Ryan Griffin, owner of Fuller Cut in Ypsilanti, Michigan, read about Barbershop Books, he was inspired to try something similar. As an added incentive for parents, Griffin offers a $2 discount on haircuts for boys—or girls—who read in his shop. Many parents and guardians re-route that money directly to the child.

Barbershop Books’ mission is to help black boys ages 4 to 8 identify as readers by connecting books and reading to a male-centered space, and by involving men in boys’ early reading experiences. According to Irby, “Lots of black boys don’t identify as readers. They don’t have reading models because less than two percent of teachers are black males and many black boys are raised by single mothers.” For some boys their barber is the most stable male role model in their lives.

In addition to championing Barbershop Books, Irby debuted a children’s book, Gross Greg (Alvin Irby LC, 2016), that seeks to fill the void of humor picture books with black characters. With this new book, Irby hopes to get boys laughing and excited about reading.

Barbershop Books wants to hear from MAN readers. To recommend books or a barbershop, sponsor a reading space, make a monetary donation (a $10 gift buys five new books) or connect the program with community partners in your area, visit barbershopbooks.org. —LK 

Every dollar invested in a Barbershop Books reading space generates 27 minutes of reading in a barbershop. 



More in News