When educator and author Alvin Irby sat down to get his haircut one day he noticed a problem.
“One of my students walked into the shop and was just sitting there doing nothing,” Irby tells ESSENCE. At the time he was teaching first grade in the Bronx and wished he could do something to keep the young boy engaged with learning while he waited for a cut.
“The whole time I was looking at him I just kept thinking I wish I had a children’s book to give him, but I didn’t,” Irby recalls.
Instead of just shaking his head at his inability to help his student in that moment, Irby created the Reading Holiday Project, a non-profit literacy organization, and rolled out Barbershop Books in 2014. Since then, Irby has helped to fill more than 100 shops with reading spaces for young children. And he’s he’s not done yet.
Recently, ESSENCE caught up with Irby about his ambitious plans for Barbershop Books, what it means to be a Do Good Brother, and why he’s so passionate about helping young children, especially Black boys, fall in love with reading.
ESSENCE: As a former teacher, I’m sure you encountered students who had a whole lot of challenges. So why did you focus on books instead of something like mentoring?
Alvin Irby: Reading is really a foundation for future learning. If you aren’t proficient in reading, then a whole world of possibilities are closed off to you. When you inspire children to read you have an opportunity to change their trajectory.
So, why reading? Because reading is freedom, in my opinion.
ESSENCE: These days we learn in so many ways–watching videos, podcasts, etc. So what makes reading well so important?
A.I.: In the 21st century, we’re in a knowledge-based economy where a lot of jobs paying a livable wage require individuals to be capable to read to learn. Unfortunately lots of people haven’t mastered learning to read, so they lack the ability to read to learn.
When you can read to learn you’re in control of your learning, and to some extent, you’re in control of your future. When you don’t possess the ability to read to learn you’re depending on others.
Obviously, the current structures of the system in place are not providing Black boys with what they need to become proficient readers. Empowering and inspiring boys to read will allow them to take control of their life.
Courtesy of Alvin Irby
ESSENCE: When you started giving books to the barbershop by your former school did you envision that it would turn into an organization that now supports several shops?
A.I.: I had no idea what would actually happen. Before Barbershop Books became what it is now, I just had a handful of books — children’s books and adult books — and I just took them into some barber shops.
I just sat and observed for some time, and what I found was that young children were most likely to engage with books in a barbershop. At that time I was spending my own money, so it made sense to focus on young children because that’s how I was getting the greatest return on social investment and getting the most reading for the money I was spending.
ESSENCE: Since starting Barbershop Books in 2014 how has it grown?
A.I.: Right now we’re in about 120 barber shops across 37 cities and 20 states. Our goal is to expand into 800 barber shops across 20 targeted cities.
In order to get there we’re going to need to raise $3 million, so I’m working on a business plan and hopefully cultivating some relationships that will help us get to where we need to go.
ESSENCE: How can people support Barbershop Books?
A.I.: They can go to our website and make a donation, or if they have a barbershop in mind that would be a good fit for our program, they can actually sponsor a reading space for their local barbershop.
ESSENCE: This series is called Do Good Brothers, so what does it mean to you to be a do good brother?
A.I.: For me, it means to have something you’re passionate about that makes other people’s lives better.
There are lots of ways to do good in the world. You can do good by running a equitable and ethical company and hiring people in the community. You can do good by running a non-profit that provides some type of service or product that wouldn’t be provided if you weren’t there. You can do good by inspiring people to be better versions of themselves.
ESSENCE: What’s next for Barbershop Books?
A.I.: For Giving Tuesday we’re raising $12,000 to expand to Baltimore to create child-friendly reading spaces in 10 barber shops in Baltimore. Our goal is to get 300 people to give $40, which would allow us to reach our goal.
Also, eventually we want to launch Beauty Shop Books and Barbershop Books Latino, which will include books in Spanish and those featuring Latinx characters.
Visit the Barbershop Books website to learn more about Alvin Irby’s work and make a donation to help even more children have access to books.