Reading is fundamental
Alvin Irby's goal for barbershops is to be a hub for the community and incorporate role models in the community. “Our goal is not to turn barbers into tutors,” he said. “This is an opportunity to provide boys with male role models.”
Barbershops play a significant role in the Black community. Historically the barbershop is not just a place to get groomed but a place filled with comradery, influences development, encouragement, and peace. Barbershops are where most boys can learn lessons from men and interact with them while remaining in a child’s place.
However, as time passed, the foundation of the original barbershop was lost, and as a result, educational development suffered. Alvin Irby, a former first-grade teacher, is trying to bring back the educational foundation of barbershops with his Barbershop Books initiative.
Starting in 2013, Irby created the Barbershop Books initiative to promote literacy in his community and help youth nationally.
“So many kids associate reading with something you do in or for school,” Irby 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.’”
Irby's program is influenced by the barber’s and kids' relationship as he talks to each of them for recommendations on what books to place in that particular shop.
“When we ask Black boys what they want to read, you hear ‘Captain Underpants’ or ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’” he said. “Kids are more than their skin color.” Irby partners with local libraries and school districts to obtain books for the barbershops.
During and after the pandemic, reading and math scores for Black kids dropped at an unexpected level, going as low as 17% of fourth graders being able to read at their level proficiently. Irby points to Black boys not seeing enough Black males reading as a reason for low scores.
“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.”
The network of Barbershop Books comprises 200 barbershops nationwide. When the pandemic hit, however, the network began to decrease.
“Before the pandemic, we partnered with a library to create reading spaces in 10 barbershops in Compton," Irby said as he talked about his partnership in Los Angeles. "After the pandemic, we lost a lot of shops within our network because they closed, but L&D Barbershop in Compton (317 E. Compton Blvd.), stayed open, and we connected with them to show them how their barbershop can impact their community by incorporating our books inside."
Irby stated that the last two years were about building the network back as he lost over half of the barbershops due to them closing, but now he has exceeded those expectations as his network has increased to 250 barbershops. “We want them to encourage kids to use the reading spaces,” Irby said as he explained the importance of a barber talking about books with kids. “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.”