It all started when Alvin was a teacher in the Bronx. He was getting his hair cut at a local barbershop and saw one of his first graders come in. The child was waiting, and Alvin, being a teacher, thought to himself, “He should be practicing his reading.” He emailed himself the idea. That was in 2008.

Fast forward to 2014… and Barbershop Books was born, with a first space in Harlem.

Barbershop Books

Today, there are 112 spaces in 28 cities across 18 states. The mission of Barbershop Books is to:

Help Black boys ages 4-8 to identify as readers by connecting books and reading to a male-centered space and by involving men in boys’ early reading experiences.

Alvin stresses that Barbershop Books’ goal is to help young Black boys identify as readers. He wants to cultivate their reading identity and their intrinsic motivation to read. Alvin says, “A lot of efforts don’t inspire kids to read for fun. It doesn’t cultivate their reading identity, it only  focuses on skills.”

He goes on to say that a lot of kids associate reading with school, assignments, teachers. It’s unfortunate, especially for kids who are struggling. What’s ironic is that the more kids struggle with reading in school, the more they don’t do well in reading, the more teachers double down on skill- based approaches, instead of providing fun reading experiences.

Barbershop Books works with the communities it serves. It helps barbers with early literacy training. “Barbers get to help the community and their clients. They are overwhelmingly supportive and positive,” Alvin explains.


Barbershop Books is part of the Holiday Reading Project, a nonprofit which Alvin founded. He has other projects he’d love to work on, but right now he is concentrating on Barbershop Books, growing it and making it sustainable.

His goal is to expand to 200 more barbershops by September 2018: 50 in NYC and 150 in other target cities. The cities he is focusing on are based on the African-American population, cities that have 150,000 African Americans or more.

How does Barbershop Books create a program?

There are two ways a barbershop gets involved:

One-an organization can get involved (a church, a community organization, etc, brings the program to a barbershop in their community.

Two – Barbershop Book may partner with community districts or schools in the area – this happens with community partners doing outreach, working with parent coordinators, etc.

In Columbus, Ohio, the City Council sponsored 10 spaces in 2016 and 20 spaces in 2017.

It costs $475 for a year-long program. That fee includes colorful shelves and books.

What kind of books does Barbershop Books provide? Alvin says, “I try to find the books that boys tell me they want to read.” He purchases books from Scholastic.


Alvin is a force to be reckoned with. He came to NYC to attend Bank Street College to get his master degree in education. He has taught in independent schools. public and charter schools. He is currently applying to attend a doctorate program at Harvard. Of course, he is also working on Barbershop Books, strategizing, fundraising and everything else.

Alvin is also a published author. When he was teaching he decided he needed to write a book about Black boys that didn’t have to do with slavery. So, he wrote Gross Greg, a children’s book about a kid who eats his boogers. You can learn more about the book and Alvin here.

Alvin also found time to be a TED Resident and his TED talk will go live on March 13th. Make sure to follow Barbershop Books on Facebook and sign up for the notifications!

Alvin is not only a dedicated educator, he is also a comedian! He is using his comedic chops to raise funds for Barbershop Books.

If you’re in the NYC area and want to laugh and to support Barbershop Books, head over to Gotham Comedy Club on March 21st. To purchase tickets for the event, click here. 

photo credits: Alvin Irby