Barbershops, laundromats turn idle time into reading opportunities

NEW YORK • They are on the same page. At dozens of barbershops and laundromats in the United States, the sound of children reading aloud mingles with the buzz from barbers' tools or the din of washers.

Makeshift shelves and crates hold books featuring cartoon characters, stories about pigeons or capers of superheroes.

This developing movement, supported by non-profit groups, entrepreneurs, libraries and community fundraising, is redefining the borders of traditional neighbourhood public libraries, by creating literary spaces in places where children find themselves with time on their hands.

Most of these patchwork libraries have taken root in laundromats and salons that already serve as meeting spots in economically struggling neighbourhoods.

At Cutz Lounge The Grooming Shop in Detroit, owner Dante Williams has sectioned off a corner of his 4,000 sq ft business with couches, where adults gossip or share news. A rack of books is placed at eye level for children, featuring Don't Let The Pigeon Stay Up Late by Mo Willems, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett, and volumes from the Captain Underpants series.

Mr Williams said: "I like to put it in their hands and say: 'Hey, look at this.' It encourages them a little bit."

Sometimes, the children take the books home, an unintended but welcomed result.

Mr Williams' salon is supplied by Barbershop Books, a project that started in New York City in 2014.

Mr Alvin Irby, the founder, was inspired by the role barbershops play as meeting places in city neighbourhoods, and wanted to focus on improving reading rates for black boys when they are very young.

"The first time some of them will interact with a book will be in a barbershop," he said.

Mr Irby, who had been an elementary teacher in the Bronx during the 2008-2009 school year, was getting his hair cut near the school when one of his first-grade students came in. "He was sitting there and started getting antsy," he said.

"I thought he should be practising his reading and I wished I had a book to give him."

His non-profit group, sponsored by school districts, libraries and individual donors, has helped install books in 185 barbershops in 44 cities in 20 states.

Laundromats, where families often spend an hour or two at a time waiting around, are also an ideal site for ensnaring children's attention.

Family Laundry in Oakland, California, functions as a hub of activism and literacy for a multi-cultural community.

Ms Laura Guevara, an owner of the laundromat, said this year a literacy programme, aided by grants, a local library and a non-profit group called Libraries Without Borders, helped stock books for children.

There are books in English, Arabic, Spanish and Mandarin, placed low so kids can wander up to them. They no longer play in a parking lot or run around inside, she noted.

Instead, they read on rugs and chairs. A local librarian drops in for story time.

Libraries Without Borders is part of the Laundry Literacy Coalition, a national initiative to promote childhood literacy in laundromats.

"We have a captive audience," said Mr Omar Laurencin, owner of Coinless Laundry in Detroit, for which the coalition has helped to provide desks, chairs and floor mats where children relax and read.

"In the past, kids would be running back and forth," he said, but now, "they literally go in the back and disappear. They are quiet."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2019, with the headline 'Barbershops, laundromats turn idle time into reading opportunities'. Print Edition | Subscribe