Kids Get More Than a Haircut in Long Branch Barbershops

By Lauren Wanko

Before 11-year-old Devin Jones gets a haircut, he chooses a book from a library in a Long Branch barbershop.

“You can learn while you’re getting a haircut,” explained Jones.

Heads Up Barbershop is part of Fade to Books: a Barbershop Literacy Intiative. Long Branch Free Public Library Director Tonya Garcia launched the program last year.

“This is an ideal example of how communities can come together for the right reasons and make something happen,” said Garcia.

Five Long Branch barbershops joined the initiative. Each now has a shelf with dozens of books in both Spanish and English.

“We focused on barbers first because we wanted to address that literacy gap of young African-American and Latino boys ages from four to 11. In our community, especially in our culture, our children grow up in barbershops. Barbers are fundamental role models and leaders in our community. They provide mentorship for our children,” Garcia said.

Monmouth University also joined the effort. Graduate student David Perez says barbershops are a community staple.

“It’s kind of like a mens’ meeting place. We talk about politics, we talk about sports and usually the kids are just sitting around staring into space or looking at their phone. With this they can actually read and eventually identify as readers, not as someone who just read a book because they had to for homework,” said Perez.

Micah Goff, the owner of Heads Up Barbershop said, “I’ve seen a lot of kids go from boys to men.”

Goff’s been in the business for more than 20 years. He offers kids incentives to read, like lollipops and free haircuts.

He said, “The kids gravitate to it. Once they see it, it’s automatic. They go right to it. Forget the TV and video games and everything else, that right there is something that they’re not used to seeing.”

“We like to read so much,” said PJ.

Four-year-olds PJ and Prince have become bookworms.

Why do they like reading so much at the barbershop?

PJ explained, “Because it’s my favorite thing to do.”

“I can read Star Wars,” Prince said. “We like Dark Vader and the Star Troopers, bad guys,” PJ added.

Bridge of Books Foundation — a nonprofit that collects new and gently used books throughout the state — donated the books in all five barbershops. Founder and Executive Director Abby Daly says originally the program coordinators asked for 25 books per shops. But she didn’t think that was enough, which is why the foundation donated 200 each — a total of 1,000 books.

Daly said, “For a program to a succeed, you want it to be something that’s meaningful, that’s going to be exciting for kids to look at, that there’s variety, that there’s something for everybody.”

“I think across the state, and up and down the state, there are communities that would benefit from it,” said Mary Chute, director of the New Jersey State Library.

Fade to Books caught the attention of the New Jersey State Library, which hopes to expand the initiative statewide. They’re offering 25 grants to libraries throughout the state. Those institutions can then partner with up to five barbershops in the community.

“We just love what it does for the literacy rates in our urban areas, which are low. And we’re very impressed by the role of the barber in these communities,” said Deputy State Librarian of Innovation and Outreach Peggy Cadigan.

PJ and Prince don’t plan to put their books down anytime soon. How many books do they think they have read so far?

PJ said, “A lot of books.”

How many more does he have to go?

“To 100!” he said.

Garcia says Fade to Books hasn’t forgotten about the girls. She hopes to eventually expand the initiative into salons.