The latest trend in barbershops across the country? Boys are reading books – sometimes aloud to their barber – while they get their buzz cut.
That's thanks to Barbershop Books, a community-based reading program that aims to create child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops for young, mostly black, boys.
The program was founded by Alvin Irby, a former elementary school teacher, in 2013. Irby was getting his hair cut in his local barbershop in Harlem in 2008 when one of his first grade students walked in, and was getting restless waiting on the couch for his turn. Irby knew the student could use reading practice and wished he could place a book in his hands while he waited.
After crowdfunding and obtaining grants, Irby launched the program in 2013 with colorful bookshelves in six different New York barbershops. The program has since spread across the country, from Houston, to Dubuque, Iowa, to Columbus, Ohio. In some shops, like Fuller Cut in Ypsilanti, Mich., kids get a $2 discount if they read a book aloud to their barber.
The program tries to stock age-, gender-, and culturally-appropriate books that would appeal to black, male youth, like "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and books featuring young black male characters and protagonists. In some barbershops, young boys are putting down video games to read, some are reading with their fathers or aloud to their barber, and some are asking to take books home with them.
More than 85 percent of black male fourth-graders in the United States are not proficient in reading, according to the 2013 U.S. Department of Education Nation's Report Card. And a dearth of black male teachers – fewer than 2 percent – means there's a dearth of role models for young black boys who can encourage reading."If children aren't reading, if they aren't able to read to learn, they will have limited prospects both in terms of employment opportunities and in the world in general," Irby told CNN.
Barbershops are an ideal place to introduce and reinforce reading. In many black communities, barbershops are a cultural center where men and families from backgrounds interact, and elders can give advice or model behavior for youth. And even one or two trips to the barbershop can make a difference, according to at least one study, as CNN reported. Students who read just once or twice a month score at higher reading levels than students who never read for fun, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education. So boys who make one or two trips to the barbershop per month can significantly improve their reading scores.
“This has helped kids in my area have a positive attitude about reading, but I ultimately want to improve the lives of all children around the world,” Irby told NBC's Today Show.
Organizations and individuals can help place books in barbershops to get boys readying by sponsoring a reading space for their local barbershops.