The owners of three Omaha barbershops want kids to see more positive role models in their community.
They want children to have wider access to books featuring African-American history and characters, or written by authors of color. And, most importantly, they just want more kids to grab a book and read.
“It’s easy to pick up a smartphone,” said Arthur Lyle, owner of Lyle’ Stylez & Cutz on South 72nd Street. “We need to get back to the basics: reading.”
So Lyle and two fellow barbershop owners — Damion Sayers of Transitions on North 24th Street and Anthony Kellogg of Cross Cuts on Military Avenue — have made room in their shops for a new feature: bookshelves featuring a colorful array of children’s books.
While kids are settling in for a cut or waiting for dad to finish up, they can grab a book to pass the time, or take one home for a bedtime story.
The initiative is called North Omaha Barbershop Books, a collaboration between the barbershop owners and staff at two Omaha elementary schools.
Dalhia Lloyd, a family and community program specialist with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, had heard about Barbershop Books, a New York City-based literacy program started by Alvin Irby, a former kindergarten teacher.
Irby’s program brought haircuts and reading together. Barbershop Books created kid-friendly reading spaces, specifically catering to black boys ages 4 through 8, as a way to close the achievement gap between black students and their white classmates.
Why not bring the idea to Omaha, Lloyd thought?
Nicole Crumbley and Tierra Stennis are home visitors for Mount View and Pinewood Elementary Schools. They visit children’s families to foster community ties as part of a partnership between the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
With the help of Keshia Partridge, a family facilitator at the Buffett Institute, they enlisted the three barbershop owners to join the cause.
“It’s a phenomenal program that started back on the East Coast, and we thought our community in north Omaha could use something like it,” Crumbley said.
They got grants to buy books and helped organize a kickoff event Monday night at Mount View that drew families of budding bookworms.
“We were really intentional about the books we picked,” Lloyd told parents. “We really wanted to let African-American boys see themselves in the books.”
Books on display tell the stories of people like Jackie Robinson or, like “Not Norman: A Goldfish Story,” feature stories and illustrations with diverse characters.
The goal is to spread the program to more schools and more barbershops across Omaha.
Barber and beauty shops play an important role in the black community, Sayers said. They’re gathering spaces where kids and adults alike come to hear stories, tell jokes or debate politics.
“We’re mentors behind a chair,” he said. “Some of those kids, they’re looking up to us.”
The barbers hope to inspire and instill a love of reading in their young customers. There will even be incentives — discounts on haircuts or an ice cream cone — for prolific readers.
“We want to encourage parents to read with their kids, too,” Kellogg said.
Kenny Huff brought his kids, Kennedy, 1, and Ke’mauri, 5, to Monday’s event. Huff is an avid reader and wants his kids to get excited about books, too.
“If this can assist me to get my son to read more, I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s an awesome thing. I’m geared up to see what else they bring out of this.”
Sonja Jarmon-Sayers snapped photos as her 10-year-old son, Owen, settled in to listen to his uncle, Damion Sayers, read.
Owen loves books like the “Percy Jackson” series.
“For my family, reading is very, very important,” Jarmon-Sayers said. “And when kids see their peers read, they want to do the same.”