The Fuller Cut Barbershop Literacy Program: A Lesson in Community Education

. May 31, 2018.
Photo credit: Brett Moyer
Photo credit: Brett Moyer

The Fuller Cut Barbershop is deep local. This section of Ecorse Street in Ypsilanti doesn’t have a sign, so if you could miss it. But lack of signage doesn’t impact this thriving family-owned business. The waiting room is full of customers, many of them black boys, patiently awaiting their frohawks and high skin fades with curly tops. Reading is a trend among this clientele, thanks to Alex Fuller.

More than a haircut

“A child that comes in with a book in her hand is rare today,” The shop’s owner says. “There are so many distractions.” The idea for the program came to Fuller from a former employee who learned that barbershops in the South were offering a similar program. Before long, the shop was receiving donations of books and money from across the country, and press as far as Russia and the UK were coming to cover the story. Today Fuller Cut will sponsor any local barbershop that wants to jumpstart their own literacy program with a bookshelf and a stack of books.

Aayan Laouali is ten and in the 5th grade at East Arbor Academy in Ypsilanti. He chose a book on Rosa Parks. The book was fairly challenging, but he read smoothly, stopping a couple of times per page to ask Mr. Fuller for help. “Rosa was a brave black woman,” he said of the story’s heroine. “No matter what color you are, you should still have equal rights.” When asked what he might like to do when he’s older, Aayan says he is good with Legos and likes to build things. “I’d like to be an engineer,” he replies confidently.

Seeing the need

Fuller is himself a product of Ypsilanti public schools, where his now-adult daughter also attended. Unlike Aayan, a lot of the kids who read for him say they hate reading, and struggle to get through a book. “If a child in 3rd grade reads at a 1st grade level, there is a disconnect between the parents, the teachers, and the children,” he says. Fuller thinks public school students are not reading as well today as they did when he was a student. He also sees a lot more single parent households today, and imagines that many of these parents struggle to stay on top of their children’s educational needs.

And then there are those moments that show him how important this program really is, like the 4th grader who came in with his father for a cut. Fuller asked the boy to pick out a book. “My son can’t read,” the boy’s father said casually. Fuller was undaunted. “Your son can read,” he insisted. The boy really struggled, and Fuller had to help him with many words in what he described as a baby book. “But as we were turning the pages, I saw the glow on the little boy’s face, like, this is it!” His father saw it too, and Fuller believes the experience left an impression.

Hope and encouragement

“I’m playing my part. It can be discouraging but just seeing the kids smiling in my chair while they read gives me hope.” And he’s not above a little bribery to encourage them. “I’ll pay a kid another two bucks to borrow a second book, bring it back and tell me what it’s about!” he says with a chuckle.

Alex Fuller is an Ypsilanti native who grew up on Harvest Street, also known as Fuller Street, because of all the Fullers who lived there. He started cutting hair when he was fifteen. His uncle taught him the basics and Alex started practicing on his friends. When his uncle gave him his own pair of clips, Alex knew he had talent. After a while, friends and family started booking appointments. He’s been cutting hair ever since. On his day off, he can often be found reading.

Get to Know Alex Fuller

On his bookshelf: Currently reading Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad.
Favorite places to eat out: In Ypsi, he and his wife like to go to Cuppy’s Soul Food. In Ann Arbor, they love Seva’s vegetarian food, and a stroll down Main Street.
Favorite thing to do with family: A self-described homebody, his favorite thing to do with his family is to hang out in the kitchen and talk.
In his free time: He loves to ride his motorcycle, but he’s got to call a locksmith because he lost the keys!