Antonio Brown’s ‘Barbershop Book Club’ continues to push St. Petersburg youth towards excellence

He’s been giving away books for nearly half a decade.

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centralstationbarbershop1/Instagram

Black barber shops play a powerful role in their communities as safe havens for conversation about politics, sports, relationships and juicy gossip. They've served as hubs for social justice, sound advice, and even health checks. Thanks to St. Petersburg’s Antonio Brown, there's yet another influential role barbershops can play: promoting kids reading with an innovative program called the Barbershop Book Club.

Brown's concept is simple. On Wednesdays from 4 p.m.-6 p.m., by appointment:

  • Kid selects a book from dozens of carefully curated titles at the shop 
  • Kid reads aloud while getting a haircut
  • Kid gets to keep the book
  • Cost of haircut: Zero dollars

Brown has had a lifelong passion for reading, and says he was the kind of child who always raised his hand to read aloud in class. "I was kind of a show-off," he told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "I was always excited about reading."

His favorites growing up were Jet and Ebony magazines, the autobiography of Malcolm X and anything about sports or entrepreneurship. Most of all, "I enjoyed reading about people who looked like me," he said. A graduate of The Boca Ciega High School, Brown went to St. Petersburg College then switched to Pinellas Technical College (P-Tech) to study plumbing, lost interest and became a barber instead. 

Chatting with his young customers, Brown could tell that some kids weren't as excited about reading as he had been. He remembers the precise moment inspiration struck.

"It was maybe five years ago. I was cutting a child's hair, talking about his report card, favorite subjects. His grades weren't that good. I asked him about reading and he said he didn't like to read,” Brown explained. “He said it was boring. Once I heard that I felt an obligation to do something from behind the chair to encourage kids, give them books, inspire them to read."

The idea didn't gain real traction until the pandemic hit and Brown would hear parents talking about their struggles with homeschooling. That's when The Barbershop Book Club materialized; Brown decided he would provide free books to kids willing to read aloud in his chair. "With lots of parents having trouble with getting kids to read, I wanted to encourage kids from behind the barber chair, try to reinforce what was already there from another environment on a consistent basis." 

Book selection is critical. Targeting kids from pre-K all the way through high school, Brown said "I'm looking for books about financial literacy, culture, Black history, the things they normally wouldn't see in school. I want kids to read about people who look like them."

Identity-affirming titles include “Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History” by Vashti Harrison, “Skin Like Mine” by Latashia M. Perry, “39 Lessons for Black Boys and Girls” by Kevin Bivins, and “I'm a Brilliant Little Black Boy” by Joshua B. Drummond and Betty K. Bynum. Brown buys his books from Cultured Books, a children's bookstore in St. Petersburg whose mission, according to its website, is to "first foster a love of self by showing positive images and sharing great stories about people of color."

Sometimes Brown will read along with the children or gently help sound out a word if they get stuck. Mostly he wants to create an environment where it's safe and fun to read.

With the support of nonprofits like the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation and St. Pete's Junior League, Brown attracted other Pinellas barbers, including Against the Grain on 16th Street S and Headquarters Barbershop on Central Avenue to join in the effort; Brown's ultimate goal is to get 500 Florida barber shops on board. The book club also caught the eye of Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls who stopped by Brown's shop to hear more about it and talk about House Bill 3, a childhood literacy program unveiled in January that includes free books for academically challenged kids. More recently, the Gulfport Kiwanis Club launched a social media book drive to support the Barbershop Book Club, distributing to potential donors Brown's wish list of titles available through Cultured Books. 

Running a busy barbershop while expanding the book club across Florida has meant that Brown usually listens to his books these days. At the moment he's listening to “The Baron Son,” described as an "allegorical tale about . . . a young boy who loses everything, and through struggle, finds the secret to become the richest, most powerful man the world has ever known."

While the Barbershop Book Club may not make Antonio Brown the richest man the world has ever known—he estimates that the program has increased business by about 3%—he understands the power he holds as a barber. "This is the place where people come for generations throughout their lives. People have loyalty to the particular shop they're raised in. We have an obligation, whether we know it or not, to offer as much positive influence to our clients as we can."

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