November 19, 2017

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Barbershops Give Kids Free Cuts if They Read Aloud

“Barber shops are the hubs of the community,” says Courtney Holmes, a part-time barber living in the Chicago suburb of Brookfield. “We’re not just barbers, we’re counselors, therapists, priests. It’s kind of like Vegas: what’s said here, stays here.”

From the Midwest to Texas, hair stylists are handing kids a book and offering to give them a haircut free of charge…if they read aloud while getting a trim. A program Holmes started back in Iowa was an impetus.

Holmes recently moved to Brookfield from Dubuque, IA, where he’d been cutting hair at Spark on Bluff. He didn’t think he was perpetuating a movement when he linked reading books with haircuts.

A girl, book in hand, cashes in on her free haircut at the Little Free Library festival.

A girl, book in hand, cashes in on her free haircut at the Little Free Library festival.

“To be honest, it was just a spur of the moment thing,” he says. At a local event called the St. Mark’s Youth Enrichment, an array of groups was offering parents tools to help kids read at grade level. Holmes, who was a member of the Dubuque Black Men Coalition, volunteered to give haircuts. A booth near his was giving away books to children. “So [I thought], ‘Why not have the kids read for a free haircut?’ There were four kids in line at first, and then the line just kept getting longer. Next thing I know, there are 20 kids waiting.” He gave vouchers to the customers he couldn’t get to before the event ended, offering the free haircut if they read to him in the shop.

The idea offers more benefits than merely a free haircut. It increases access to books—something greatly needed in low-income communities—and helps to fight the summer slide. “Kids of color and low-income kids aren’t getting the literacy and the reading that they need,” Holmes says. “They need to read 20 or more minutes a day, and in the summer they really fall behind, so it’s just important. Everybody [needs] to get a haircut, so what better place?”

Holmes was spurred on by a truly disturbing fact he discovered. “States base how many prisons to build off of the state’s third-grade reading levels. A stat like that…I want to change that as fast as I can. I know I’m only doing my part once a month, but to me, helping a kid read is more important than any job I can do, so if I can help out, I’m going to make sure that kid reads.”

The "Storybook Barber," Courtney Holmes, at the Little Free LIbrary Festival.

The “Storybook Barber,” Courtney Holmes, at the Little Free Library Festival.

Now known as the Storybook Barber, Holmes continues to encourage literacy by participating in events, and he, of course, makes sure to read to his own children, ages three and five. “I had to teach myself to like reading,” he says. He’s hoping to break that mindset for his sons. “I read them two or three books every night. We keep a bunch of books around.” Favorites include Pete the Cat (HarperCollins, 2010) and the “Piggy and Elephant” series (Disney-Hyperion).

Though Holmes no longer works at the barber shop in Dubuque, the program he started is still going strong. “We saw how much the kids really appreciated it. We enjoyed the kids reading to us, and we thought that was something we needed to offer,”  says the shop’s co-owner, Amanda Trotman. On the first Tuesday of every month, Trotman estimates that about 10 kids trade reading time for a haircut. Barbers get more readers around Christmas and before the new school year begins. Employees also offer the same deal at charity events. During an event in Minneapolis last spring, staff gave 100 haircuts in exchange for stories.

Though Holmes is missed at Spark on Bluff, Trotman is happy that his departure has made the barbershop-literacy connection known to more people. “His goal is to spread this around to more salons,” she says. “We want to encourage him to spread the movement. It was good for him to be able to take this to a bigger city and reach different people in a different area.”

Groomed for Literacy Takes Hold in Texas

Meanwhile, in Houston, the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation partnered with the Houston Public Library, as well as the Put It In A Book Foundation and the Little Free Library, to create a program called Groomed for Literacy. The initiative, geared to students from pre-K through high school, launched in late September of 2016. “We provided grants to libraries to purchase Little Free Libraries, to be assembled and painted in barbershops, and provided books,” says Julie Baker Finck, president of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation

Initially, the grant to get Groomed for Literacy started was $9,000, which was matched by the Little Free Library organization. This was enough to put libraries in 30 shops. It takes approximately a week to set up one location, and Baker Finck says she expects Groomed for Literacy to have 60 locations by the end of the calendar year.

For those thinking of starting similar initiatives in their areas, Baker Finck advises having a long-range plan to refresh books. “Make sure there’s a decent selection for your audience,” she says. “You have to have an overall strategy, not just the initial fulfillment. Train, support, check in on barbers because it’s new and sometimes adults don’t know what to ask that would help build comprehension and competence levels and excitement.”

Trotman has seen excitement for the literacy program grow. “[The kids] look forward to it. It’s been a lot of fun to see these kids read the books and have that access.” Books are donated to Trotman’s salon from around the country; she estimates she’s received 10,000 in the two years she’s taken part in the initiative, including donations from authors and companies including Wrangler and Nickelodeon. There are so many books that Trotman has started passing them on to homeless shelters and Habitat for Humanity locations.

The wide distribution of books is something Todd Bol, the founder and executive director of the Little Free Library, is passionate about. “I believe strongly that wherever we gather, there shall be books,” he says. “It’s the barber shop, laundromat, cafe, coffee shop. Neighbors have to step up to help each other by working together in our community.”

From Iowa to Illinois to Houston to Michigan, the idea of encouraging literacy in neighborhood barber shops is catching on, and Courtney Holmes is thrilled about it. “It’s been a ripple effect,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned. There’s no losing out if you do it from the heart.”

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Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    You are a fabulous journalist! Can’t wait to read more of your material!

  2. The idea of encouraging literacy in neighborhood barber shops IS catching on and I absolutely agree with Courtney Holmes that it is a win-win situation! In2016 the Long Branch Public Library started Fade to Books. We partnered with five barbershops and the Bridge of Books Foundation. Soon after, the New Jersey State Library toured the barbershops to see the program in action! This year, with a grant made possible by the NJSL, twenty libraries will be afforded the opportunity to bring our program state-wide placing books in up to 100 barbershops! The concept not only places books into the hands of our future, it encourages interaction and engagement. Fathers reading to sons, older brothers reading to siblings and vice versa. I am extremely proud to see this initiative go state-wide and just as excited to see the success of the programs spotlighted here. Congrats!

    • I’m so happy to hear that, Tonya!! These programs are beneficial and fun, and I’m happy to hear that New Jersey is joining in. :o)

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