Cleveland barbershop reading project keeps kids' heads in books while waiting for haircuts

Kids encouraged to read from barbershop book shelf

BEDFORD, Ohio - When a youngster crossed the threshold of the Outliners Barbershop in Bedford Heights, he knew what would be one of the first words from his barber. 

"How ya doin?" asked Brian Smith, whose chair is nearest the door. 

The youngster smiled, knowing what would be the next statement by Smith. It came quickly.

"Grab a book; I'll be with you soon."

Smith had a customer in the chair, but the youngster was next for a haircut. While waiting, the boy, about 10, sat in an upholstered chair in a back corner of the shop and thumbed through the pages from a book he drew from the shelves.

Outliners is a participant in the Barbershop Literacy Project begun by Claudette Cole, a Cleveland-area woman. Cole went from shop to shop encouraging owners to join her volunteer project of establishing reading corners with approved materials for children.

"Our children must be able to communicate," said Cole, her eyes shining as she talked about the project she began with donated books or books she has bought with her own money. "In order to communicate, they need an extended vocabulary."

Cole has found 21 barbershops throughout the black communities of greater Cleveland eager to participate. She chose barbershops for her program because in all communities, perhaps especially in the black communities of America, such businesses can play pivotal roles in their communities' ,growth.

"The presence of positive men who are strong," said Cole, describing the strengths of the shops. "When you come to a barbershop, that's a place of power."

The shops are usually filled with men, both behind the chairs and in the chairs. 

"Doctors, lawyers, judges, plumbers, media personalities -- all of them -- get to the barbershop," she said. 

Educators have long worried about the reading gap between black children and white children. Cole said she believes the gap can be closed with encouragements given to youngsters, especially the boys who come to the shops for haircuts. 

James Gilliam Jr. is one of the boys who found a comfortable chair for reading a book pulled from the Outliners' reading corner.

"Before the books were here, I used to just sit here and watch television," he said.  "Now I grab a book." When asked if he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, the answer came quickly. "I want to be a pediatrician."

At Outliners, there were many books and magazines from which to choose.  Among the publications were many copies of National Geographic Magazine with their colorful photographs from around the world, and well-researched and well-written stories of people, places, and things. 

James's father, James Gilliam Sr., owns the shop. While his son was waiting for his turn in his father's chair, the barbershop owner praised the work of Cole, who did not have to work hard to get him to participate in the project.

"It opened my eyes to see what we could do just being barbers to influence the kids," said Gilliam.

Traditionally, barbershops have been hubs of discussions. There are discussions on politics, social concerns, medical issues, current events and sports. 

"If you want to know what's going on in the neighborhood, go to the barbershop," said one customer. "Barbers usually know everything that is happening."

Cole is helping build communities by insuring there are more positive aspects of life for children, especially boys, to see. The barbers in Outliners agree.  Cole said the other nearly two dozen shop owners echo that sentiment. 

"If I can be a positive role model and keep these young people influenced, then we are doing a great job," said Smith as he trimmed the hair of a youthful customer.

"We're the uncles of the neighborhood," said Gilliam. 

That said a great deal about the importance the barbers have placed on what they do. 

Another youngster walked into the shop.

"Grab a book," suggested Smith. 

Within seconds, the boy brought a big book up and buried his face into it. 

"He's going to learn something he did not know before he walked in here," said Cole.  "Maybe he will explore and investigate more about what he is reading."

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