A hum that greeted visitors entering the Austin Branch of the Chicago Public Library seemed unusual, emanating from a rear reading room.
It’s the distinct hum of electric clippers, the backdrop noise of any barbershop, recognizable as you draw near.
But here, in the library?
Yup. Inside the bustling room are a bunch of tweens and teens, some with parents, others who came on their own. Many are awaiting their turn. A few sit aproned under barbers meticulously shearing bushy heads into close cropped crews, tapered fades, orderly afros, and a Mohawk or two.
“I asked for a taper. I think he did a good job,” said Jason Bryant, 12, as he exited the chair and surveyed the work of barber Joshua Kruel, 28, who grew up in Austin and now lives in west suburban Boulder Hill.
Kruel drives two hours round trip monthly, every second Monday, to give kids free haircuts, as part of the “Fades for Days” program, which started here in February.
Teen librarian Armena Ketchum had been contemplating new ways to draw youth into the library at 5616 W. Race, recently re-opened after being shuttered four months for renovations. Veteran barber Alexander Fowles, 42, of Rogers Park, pitched her the pop-up barbershop after learning of a similar program at the West Englewood Branch. The two communities are among toughest in the city.
“I came by one day, and asked the branch manager if she’d ever consider having some barbers come in, and we can give haircuts, maybe have someone come and moderate, maybe we could read some books, you know? This would be a safe haven,” said Fowles, in the barber business for 20 years.
“I contract with places like homeless shelters, nursing homes, hospitals. I often do it even if people can’t pay,” he said. “If you could see the look on people’s faces, the joy, after a good haircut. It makes you thankful God has given you a talent where you can help someone.”
The project aligns with a systemwide effort to draw more youth to the library’s teen services, a Chicago Public Library spokeswoman said. Those efforts include 1st Saturdays: Careers in Focus, exposing teens to diverse careers; YOUmedia, dedicated teen digital learning spaces CPL plans to expand to 20 locations by year’s end; and last month’s ChiTeen Lit Fest, a two-day fest now in its third year.
William Shingleton sits for his summer haircut on Monday at Austin Library in Chicago. | Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times
After Ketchum got a few more barbers on board, Fowles’ vision was realized.
“There hadn’t been a teen librarian here in four years, so there was a whole generation of high school students that hadn’t interacted with anyone in the library. I said I have to find a way that’s going to appeal to the youth and get them excited about coming in. What better way than free haircuts?” said Ketchum, quick to quote from the book, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” by Derrick Barnes, about the power of a cool cut to bolster a kid’s confidence.
“In the Austin community, there is a lot of gang and drug activity, homelessness, poverty, a long list of distractions that teens have,” she continued. “What I find today is that our youth actually are disconnected from what it means to be a teenager. This program has allowed us to connect with them in a way that they know it’s a safe space, that there are people here that care and actually want to connect with them, to know what they need.”
“Fades for Days” is billed for males ages 13-18, an at-risk population, but Ketchum and her barbers — on a recent day, Fowles, Kruel and Gregory Cooper, 34, of Naperville — often ignore the age parameters, trimming up younger siblings.
“It’s nice to be able to get them a haircut. Kids don’t understand that when money is tight, you can’t always get it done when you need to,” said Jason’s mother, Sabrina Bryant. “A free program like this helps so much, and gets the kids hanging out in the library, besides.”
Cooper and Kruel make the trek from the suburbs because they want to give back.
“Growing up, I looked up to my barbers, and loved going to the barbershop and hearing the grown men’s conversations. I learned a lot from them, and wanted to bring that here,” Kruel said. “All it takes to start gang-banging is one conversation that makes them say, ‘Hey, maybe I should start doing this, because I don’t see nothing else.’ In the same one conversation, I might be able to tell them something that changes their decision making. If you can trust someone to get you right, up top, I figure you can trust them to take information from them.”