Clumps of hair pile on the floor as R.J. Franklin reads The Same Stuff as Stars from the barber’s chair. He sounds out words, slowly making his way though Katherine Paterson’s young adult novel. Cassiopeia. Briefcase. Anxious.
“Do you know what that word means?” barber Antonio Brown asks. “Anxious.”
“When you’re angry?” the 10-year-old asks.
“It’s when you’re kind of nervous and eager,” Brown explains. “So if your dad says, ‘Hey we’re going to Orlando, you better be good’ it makes you anxious, right?”
Brown, master barber and owner of Central Station Barbershop & Grooming on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, teaches kids ages 4 to 12 how to read from 4 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday as they get their hair cut. And if they read the book to him, they get to keep the book and get a free haircut.
Brown, 39, came up with the idea five years ago when he first opened the shop. He wanted to do something different in the barbershop — something that would help kids.
“I was always passionate about reading, so now I’m carrying it on,” Brown said. “I don’t take for granted knowing how to read. Being able to teach to those younger than me is something I’m dedicated to doing.”
The books are donated from people across the city, Brown said. The most recent donor dropped off two big reusable Publix bags full of spoils for young readers. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears. Brown Girl Dreaming. One Crazy Summer.
Brown doesn’t see many young clients, maybe 20 kids a month, but he hopes the program will bring in more customers. He tried to start the program two years ago, but stopped it for a while. When he launched it again this month, a handful of kids came out.
Some parents can’t come on Wednesday, so Brown gives out the books whenever they drop in for a haircut. In the next few months, Brown said, he would like to start a scholarship program for kids of all ages. Ideally, he would hold an essay contest and six kids would win $500 to attend educational camps, buy school supplies and take any other opportunity that furthers their education.
“I’m trying to help mentor the boys, the kids,” he said. “Being able to reach the kids from behind the chair, I’ve noticed is something that can be very effective.”
Brown tries to be a good example; to be another positive voice that is not their mom or dad.
“It’s something our young boys don’t see a lot of,” he added. “They don’t see a lot of Black educators. A lot of Black men talking about reading.”
Brown remembers his assistant principal at Bay Point Middle School, Mr. Bonner. Bonner told him stories about his late grandfather, who was the head of the recreation centers in the city.
“He died before I was born,” Brown said. “So we had conversations about where I came from.”
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Brown doesn’t always stick to reading. When his cousin, 13-year-old Cromartie Evans, comes in for a haircut, they discuss football at length.
The eighth grader at Azalea Middle School plays cornerback and wide receiver. Brown played football at Boca Ciega High School in the late ’90s.
“You know I was one of the little guys when I first started, but I had the most heart,” Brown said. He offered to help Cromartie and reminded him to keep up with his pushups.
“You’re going to do good. You’ve just got to make sure you’re doing better than the rest of them out there.”
Once the shop talk concluded, Cromartie began to read Orbiting Jupiter, a young adult novel by Gary D. Schmidt.
Cromartie’s feet tapped the pedestal as he parsed through the first chapter. Brown silently shaped the boy’s hairline, but reminded him, “When you come across a word you don’t know, I would like for you to write it down and look it up in the dictionary later.”
R.J. was one of Brown’s first customers in the program. Now, he’s in the fourth grade at Bay Vista Fundamental School, but he’s still loyal to Brown.
“He won’t go anywhere else,” said his dad, Watt Franklin. “He goes ‘I want to see Antonio.‘”
Though R.J. loves to play Fortnite on his Xbox, he likes to read, too. The program is a “dope” opportunity, Franklin said.
Franklin knows the importance of reading. R.J.‘s mother reads with him most nights before bed.
“It can do a lot for you,” Franklin said. “I’ve been trying to get him to read with enthusiasm so he understands emotions and the meaning of the words.”
“That’s good,” Brown added. “Give him 20 minutes a day with a book, that’s good.”
But R.J. kept reading, focused on his goal: the next chapter.
“You’re reading pretty good, R.J.,” praised his dad as he taped his son with his smartphone.
To book an appointment, call Antonio Brown at (727) 710-6427. Donations of books, school supplies and uniforms can be dropped off at Central Station Barbershop & Grooming, 2325 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.