Illustration by Saverio Truglia
“Hey, how you doin’? I’m Courtney. What grade are you in? Third? What’s your favorite book? Elephant and Piggy? Yeah, I got it.”
If you thought you’d walked into a library with a greeting like that, you wouldn’t be too far off. In fact, you’ve entered the workplace of Courtney Holmes, aka the Storybook Barber.
Two years ago, Dubuque, Iowa, held its first annual Back to School Bash, offering needy families an opportunity to learn about free resources in the community. Holmes agreed to participate. He was holding down two jobs at the time—one with the city’s public works department, the other as a barber. Saturday was his busiest haircutting day, but he chose to donate his time and give free haircuts to underprivileged kids so they’d look sharp on that first day of classes. But then he had a lightbulb moment: “The kids should earn their free haircut by having to read a book to me,” Holmes said.
The idea was so popular that he continued it the first Tuesday of every month for the next two years. Five- to ten-year-old boys would grab a favorite book, settle into the barber chair, and read aloud while Holmes snipped away. If they stumbled over a word, Holmes was there to help. After the haircut, they’d review the book, from the characters and vocabulary to the themes—just like in school, only more fun.
“These kids are eager to learn,” says Holmes. “They want to open their minds.”
Holmes, who is married and has two sons, ages three and four, recognizes that not every parent has the time to read with their kids. “I get it. You have four kids, and you’re working two jobs. Sitting down and listening to them read is the last thing you have time to do. You have to clean the house or cook dinner. So I say bring your kids in and let them read to me.”
Holmes admits he, too, benefits from the free snip-and-reads.
“There was this seven-year-old who struggled through his book, stuttering over words even though he didn’t have a stutter,” said Holmes. He had the boy take the book home and practice. When the child came back a few days later, “He read it with no problems. That inspires me.”
Holmes and his family have recently moved from Dubuque to a Chicago suburb. When they get settled, he plans to resume his role as the Storybook Barber. “The way the world is today with guns and violence,” he says, “it’s a safe haven for the kids, to come to the barbershop and read books.”