NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – The barbershop has always held a special value in each community.
It’s not just a place to get a haircut, it’s a neighborhood hub. And for some barbershops in Harlem, they’re becoming a center for reading.
“Especially at a young age like this — this young mind, he has a sponge, his head is a sponge,” Harlem Masters owner Polo Greene told CBS2’s Steve Overmyer.
For decades, barbershops like Harlem Masters have become a community hub.
“This is where you become a man in the barbershop ,” said actor and comedian Leonard Utz. “Especially for black people. We go to the barbershop, it’s not even just to get a haircut. You know you’re going to run into another black man, and you know he’s going to say something to you.”
The addition of a bookshelf transforms it into a place of empowerment.
“With the help of Barbershop Books, we also open up their minds to be aware of who they can be,” Greene said.
Alvin Irby started the program to improve reading levels of the next generation. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of black males ages four to eight who are not proficient in reading is 85 percent.
“It’s about helping young black boys and other boys of color to identify as readers,” said Irby. “We see almost no reading happening prior to the Barbershop Books program being in those barbershops. And then afterwards, barbers are seeing children reading almost every day,” said Irby.
Quincy Transou, 18, and his brother were two of the early adapters to the program when it started eight years ago.
“At this young, it’s always important to get your nose in a book, because you’re way more outgoing when you’re reading that early – way more,” he said.
Books may be fun to read, but much better when dad reads them to you.
“Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, they’re just putting children’s books in barbershops.’ It’s so much more than that. We use a curated list of books that are recommended by young black boys themselves,” said Irby. “We also have taken the time to really think about how can we provide early literacy training to barbers that’s going to equip them to be able to create these positive early reading experiences in the barbershop?”
Barbershop Books is in 12 barbershops in Harlem in 110 nationwide. It earned the Innovations in Reading prize from the National Book Foundation, and just recently, Irby was honored by the New York Knicks with the Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award.
“We just like to honor people who have class,” Knicks legend John Starks said. “Doing some great things in trying to get kids to read, and what a great place to do it at a barbershop.”
It may seem like the tool of choice is clippers, but these barbers see the value of their efforts in the development of young lives.
“They get a sticker, which is like a badge – almost like a sheriff’s badge,” Greene said. “I think every barbershop in America should have Barbershop Books in their barbershop.”
“It’s creating the type of positive early reading experiences that will inspire a child to say three words – ‘I’m a reader.’” Irby said.
Their goal is to expand to 50 more barbershops in the city and more than 200 nationwide. For more information on how you can help, click here.