In 2008, first grade teacher Alvin Irby stopped by a Bronx barbershop after school for a haircut. Before long, one of his students came in.
“He is getting antsy; he’s kind of looking bored,” Irby recalled. “I’m looking at this student (thinking), ‘He should be practicing his reading.’ But I didn’t have a book.”
That moment stayed with Irby, and five years later he started Barbershop Books. Since 2013, the nonprofit has brought more than 50,000 free children’s books to more than 200 barbershops in predominantly Black neighborhoods across the country.
After the pandemic, math and reading scores in the US dropped to levels not seen for decades, yet literacy rates have long been lower for Black students. Only 17% of Black fourth graders are proficient in reading – and that number is likely even lower for the boys, who consistently score lower than girls in reading. The long-term implications of this can be serious.
Irby is working to change that, but not by helping children practice phonics or decode words. While he acknowledges those skills are essential, his approach is different: He wants to encourage boys to read for fun, on their own.
“So many kids associate reading with something you do in or for school,” he said. “If the only place a kid practices piano is during a lesson, the progress will be slow. … Our program is about getting kids to say three words: ‘I’m a reader.’”
Boys, books, and barbershops
Irby’s program may seem straightforward, but there’s a lot of thought behind it. He puts a colorful, kid-sized bookshelf in each shop, making it inviting to children. The books displayed are all carefully chosen based on recommendations from Black boys ages 4 to 8, his target audience. Many of these stories feature people of color, but for Irby, the most important quality of a book is that it should be fun to read.
“When we ask Black boys about what they want to read, you hear ‘Captain Underpants’ or ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’” he said. “Kids are more than their skin color.”
The setting for his work is both practical and meaningful. Not only do boys visit barbershops once or twice a month, but they are important hubs of the Black community.
“We are putting books in a male-centered space,” Irby said. “Less than 2% of teachers are Black males and many Black boys are raised by single moms. Black boys don’t see Black men reading.”
So, Irby involves the barbers in his mission – training them to engage boys about reading.
“We want them to encourage kids to use the reading spaces,” he said. “Then they can talk to them about how they like reading, how funny a book was, or tell them about another book another kid was reading.”
Irby believes that talking about books with a Black man can be powerful for the boys he serves.
“Our goal is not to turn barbers into tutors,” he said. “This is an opportunity to provide boys with male role models.”
Denny Moe was the first barber to work with Irby. Moe had previously offered video games at his Harlem shop, to bring in extra income, but he was willing to forego that to help the community.
“I decided to pay it forward by getting rid of the video games, putting books in here, just to get the kids’ minds going,” he said. “You want to make an impact.”
In Philadelphia, barber Mike Monroe joined Irby’s program a couple of years ago. He says he’s happy to encourage children to browse through the bookshelf in his shop.
“A lot of times we direct them to the books,” he said. “It’s a beautiful feeling, just seeing that they’re putting electronic devices down and actually reading a book.”
Larry Wilson, owner of Levels Barbershop in Harlem, gets a lot of personal satisfaction from seeing children reading.
“The kids – they love it. They’re reading with their parents, and that’s great to see as well,” he said. “It just adds more substance to what I do, to my job.”
Irby’s group now also partners with libraries and school districts. His program is in nearly 60 cities in 24 states, impacting more than 10,000 children a year.
Reading unlocks potential
Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Alvin Irby’s mother taught elementary school and always emphasized the importance of reading to him. But it wasn’t until he got to high school that he began to realize its value.
“In my 10th grade English class, we were reading short stories and doing spelling tests and I was bored out of my mind, so I went to the counselor to ask if I could be in another class,” he said. “I got into pre-AP (advanced placement) and we were reading novels and doing book reports.”
The class inspired him and challenged him in ways he found rewarding. But he was disturbed to see that the advanced class had mostly white students, while his other English class had been mostly students of color.
“It was jarring for me, looking at this difference in the demographics of the students and looking at this difference in the rigor,” Irby said. “And at the center of all of this was the difference in reading expectations.”
For a school project, he surveyed his classmates about their reading habits and discovered that most of them didn’t read at all if it wasn’t required. The experience galvanized him to run for student council president, vowing to create a reading incentive program. He won and designed a competition encouraging students to write about books for a chance to win gift cards to a local bookstore. The experience left a lasting impact on him.
“It showed me my ideas could do something,” he said. “I didn’t think of myself as a literacy advocate at that time, but looking back, I’ve been on this journey for a minute.”
Irby attended college in Iowa and eventually moved to New York City, where he got a degree in education and became a teacher. Now, he draws on all this experience in his work.
New challenges spark new Ideas
During the coronavirus pandemic, Irby’s organization went online. He created a free e-library on his website featuring videos of him reading picture books aloud as well as digital copies of books by authors of color.
He also created Reading So Lit, an online program designed to help Black and Brown children understand and express their reading preferences.
“We ask them to think about their favorite reading spot, or their favorite genre of fiction and nonfiction,” he said. “We want to help them develop a reading identity.”
He’s now expanded this into a curriculum that will pilot in several schools this fall and he’s working with developers to build an educational technology platform to expand it nationwide. He hopes this program will help teachers better understand how to engage their students.
But the heart of his program remains in barbershops and reaching boys like 8-year-old twin brothers Chance and Chase, who read every time they come to Wilson’s shop.
“These books, I would say, have power,” Chance said. “The power of funness.”
That’s what keeps Irby motivated.
“I’m just excited that we get to create a safe space for boys to do something that’s really life changing,” he said. “That’s what I really believe reading is. It unlocks potential.”
Want to get involved? Check out the Barbershop Books website and see how to help.
To donate to Barbershop Books via GoFundMe, click here