By Michelle King

When I tell people that I’m from South Florida, I’m usually met with some derivative of “Florida is so weird.” I don’t correct them, mostly because I’m not entirely sure they’re incorrect. Florida, with its seemingly endless unsettling news (sinkhole in Disney World, anyone?), is indeed weird, and South Florida is the ne plus ultra of the state’s eccentricity. But it’s also my native land, and though I can laugh at a good Florida joke, I have a deep affinity for my home state.

It’s this relationship with Florida, as well as my relationship with literature, that found me so moved by the story of a Palm Beach County barber shop going out of its way to promote reading. Reggie Ross, the owner of Royal Touch Barber Shop in Sunrise, Florida, offers his young visitors books to read while they wait and when they’re in the chair. There are no TVs or radios inside Royal Touch, but, instead, a small library of books that tackle topics ranging from college admission to African-American history.

Owner Reggie Ross at Royal Touch Barber Shop (via Book Patrol)

“I’m very selective about the books here,” said Ross to the South Florida Times. “We emphasize culture and broadening their horizons — books that are going to help them get ahead in life.”

If kids do want to listen to music or watch a movie on their smartphones, they are welcome to do so only if they can provide Ross with the definition of a school-assigned vocabulary word. He engages patrons in discussions about what they’re reading and even asks kids to read aloud. The graduation rate at Palm Beach County is reportedly at just 50 percent, and it’s Ross’s hope that his initiatives will help emphasize education.

I would be lying if I said I was familiar with Royal Touch Barber Shop, but I am very familiar with the neighborhood its located in. It’s 30 minutes from my childhood home, 15 from my high school and just 5 from the healthcare clinic where I volunteered. During my time at the clinic, I met many young people who had dropped out of high school. The criticism often launched at them was that they were stupid, lazy or both — but I never saw that. What I did see were young men and women who had been discouraged by their own communities. Ross’s barber shop is fighting that.

“If you talk to some of these kids, they’re some of the brightest kids that ever lived,” Ross told the Times. “Some of them are just not exposed to much.”

Royal Touch's efforts seem to be paying off. “I come here to read and improve my knowledge,” a young customer told WPTV. “There’s just so many books here.”

Ross’s initiative shows South Florida’s young men that reading isn’t just schoolwork, that books can help better them as individuals, as well as bettering their lives. As a New York resident who can’t quite let go of the Florida ID in her wallet, I’m proud to be from a state that has taken such an original and creative approach to exposing young people to literature.

Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29 and The Topaz Review. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.

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