Get a Haircut, Read a Book

August 31, 2015

A Saturday morning haircut ignited a passion and inspired a program that is drawing Alvin Irby ’07 national attention.

“I want to change the conversation and spark national discussion about reading, especially for black boys,” Irby says. “The issue is not capacity or ability. The issue is identity. Instead of asking ‘Why aren’t they reading?,’ let’s ask ‘Why shouldn’t they be reading?” Their social cues are not there. They may never see black adult males reading and engaging with books. They may never have black role models in the classroom.”

Love of reading

In Advanced Placement English, Irby says, he “fell in love with reading and thought everyone else should too.” While student body president at his Little Rock, Ark., high school, Irby conducted a survey and found that many students didn’t read beyond what was required of them.

After graduating from Grinnell with a sociology degree, Irby moved to New York City where he taught first grade at Bronx Public School 69.

On a Saturday, while waiting for a haircut at a local barbershop, Irby observed one of his students, also waiting, acting out, running around, being bored.

“He was my student, and I thought he should be using his time better. He should be reading,” Irby says. He went home that day and wrote a one-page statement about the need to create spaces in barbershops where black boys could read.

Irby put the idea for what would become Barbershop Books on the shelf while he pursued other work.

He delved into a two-year role as education director at the Boys Club of New York in East Harlem. When he decided he needed formal management training to advance his work, he applied to NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, entered a non-profit management program, and “used every class to start Barbershop Books.”

Starting Barbershop Books

“Once I completed my MPA, I knew I was ready to start Barbershop Books,” Irby says. “I used all of my own money, plus some crowdfunding to help pilot the program in six reading spaces in Harlem and Brooklyn barbershops.”

A public policy competition drew national attention to his project, and Irby has since received requests from across the country to bring Barbershop Books to Anchorage, Baltimore, and Kansas City, to name a few.

Each barbershop book space costs $500 to stock with “culturally diverse, age appropriate, and gender responsive books,” as well as an attractive yellow reading chair and book sling. Irby is working full-time to apply for grants and solicit strategic partnerships to launch the program in other cities.

“We are all a collection of our experiences,” Irby says.  “I don’t take for granted that I’ve had opportunities. I want to use my experience to change how black boys identify themselves as readers.”

One haircut, one book at a time.

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