A new collaboration enlists Central Ohio barbers to encourage early reading.

A new collaboration enlists Central Ohio barbers to encourage early reading.

Barbers do more than cut hair. They're cornerstones of community life, keeping folks informed, entertained and engaged while also trimming sideburns and shaving necklines. "They really are psychologists," says Columbus City Councilman Shannon Hardin. "They are educators. They are community leaders. They're friends. And they have an amazing amount of influence over young people."

That influence, Hardin says, is why he and other Columbus City Council members teamed with Columbus City Schools to bring Barbershop Books, a national community-based literacy program, to Columbus. The pilot program, which launched in June, encourages reading among children-particularly African-American boys ages 4-8-by giving them an unusual access point to books outside of the classroom: barbershops.

"We want to connect books and reading to a male-centered space and connect men to the early reading experience of boys," said national founder Alvin Irby at an introductory orientation with local barbers at the Ohio State Barber College in June.

The citywide initiative came about following an outreach effort spearheaded by Hardin and fellow Columbus City Council member Jaiza Page to engage area barbers in a discussion about issues facing the communities they serve. Ten barbershops, mostly in Columbus urban neighborhoods, have agreed to participate.

Leaders from Columbus City Schools are always looking for fun and relevant opportunities to connect kids with reading, says Scott Varner, the district's executive director of strategic communications and public affairs. These child-friendly reading spaces include a colorful bookshelf with 15 specially selected books that feature realistic, multicultural settings and main characters that kids can identify with. "We think that's important so that the students see themselves in the stories, and that's how we get them to continue to read and be involved in the stories," says Varner.

Popular titles such as "The Snowy Day," "No, David!" and "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" are included. In addition to the reading spaces at each participating shop, barbers have been trained and encouraged to engage children with questions about the books and suggestions for reading.

"As a community advocate and professional barber, I understand the role and impact that barbershops can have in the community," says Lamont Evans of Unique Image Barber and Beauty Salon. "The Barbershop Books program is simple and will be effective. It has a clear goal of helping young men identify as readers, and I believe an unconventional space like a barbershop will make it fun."