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Local nonprofit brings books into barbershops to help improve childhood literacy

HARLEM, New York- Getting a trim is a treat for SIX-year-old Demitri and here at Denny Moe's Superstar Barbershop in Harlem, a trip to the barbershop comes with a fresh cut and a fresh mind. In the back, past all the chairs, razors and adults is a refuge for reading. “It makes me feel happy because you can learn information all about anything you want to read," Dimitri said. 

The small shelf of children’s books was donated by a local nonprofit founded by Alvin Irby. “What Barbershop Books is about is really helping kids to fall in love with reading," he explained. The former school teacher came up with the idea to have reading spaces in barbershops after seeing one of his first grade students waiting for a haircut. “The whole time I was looking at him kind of sitting there doing nothing and I was like he should really be practicing his reading right now, I knew his reading level,” Irby remembered.

He began collecting and making community connections. The first location launched here three years ago. Now, Barbershop Books is in 50 shops across 12 states. “I’m an advocate for education, so I jumped to it real quick, he told me about it, I thought it was a great idea," Dennis Mitchell, owner of Denny Moe's, said. “When I look back there every now and then and see a kid reading, it does me good."

Alvin recently won a Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation, a that prize comes with a $10,000 grant and he hopes to continue sparking a love of learning in all kids but he’s focusing on boys of color. That’s because recent statistics by the U.S. Department of Education show nearly 85 percent of America’s black male 4th graders are not proficient in reading. “What I’m hoping to do is get kids to understand that reading and learning isn’t something that is limited to a classroom or an assignment or to a school when actually it’s something you can do anywhere, anytime even in a barbershop," Irby said. 

That starts by supplying stories they actually want to read. “The number one thing they look for [is] a book that will make them laugh," Irby said. It seems to be working. He says shop owners tell him there has been a substantial increase in the number of kids who read and the amount of time they spend reading. “It feels good because I wanted to read because I didn’t want to sit here and just do nothing," Nahla, a child visiting the barbershop, said. "If you’re bored while you’re just sitting there you could read a book at entertain yourself," another child said. 

And that’s all Alvin needs to hear. “When I’m in a barbershop and I see a father reading to his daughter, it feels really good," he smiled. He is also an accomplished stand-up comedian and author. He just released his first children’s book called “Gross Greg.”

 

Produced by: Kim Pestalozzi