BookTini Brings Books to East Oakland

The latest service project of a book-reading, cocktail-loving women’s club puts books into the hands of boys via the Black Sheep barbershop to improve literacy rates.


Melvin Lawrence is thrilled the BookTini book club is bringing bookshelves and books to his barbershop. Black Sheep.

Photo by Stephen Texeira

At the Black Sheep on High Street—with its red-lacquered walls, Obama posters, and huge, comfy couch—the raison d’être is not hair gel and aftershave. It’s conversation. On any given afternoon, you’ll find a crowd of Oaklanders talking about marriage, ISIS, climate change, the Warriors, life.

“The price of admission here is that you have to talk,” Lawrence said. “And listen. You don’t even have to get your hair cut. This is a free speech zone, and we want people to talk and listen to each other—and think.”

Recently, neighborhood boys have started stopping by after school. For months, Lawrence thought about ways to engage them. Some remind him of himself at that age: good kids, but not particularly motivated academically.

Enter the BookTini book club, a group of Oakland women who meet monthly to talk books and drink literary-themed cocktails. The club also does community service projects and this year wanted to focus on literacy among African-American boys—a subgroup that reads at a significantly lower level than their white counterparts.

Through mutual friends, Lawrence and BookTini found each other, and it was a match that would have made Jack London proud. In January, BookTini will donate bookshelves and about $2,000 worth of books to the Black Sheep. And not just any books: books that are aimed specifically at African-American boys ages 3 to 15. Titles include: X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon; When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc & the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill and Theodore Taylor; and Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big by Chris Paul and Frank Morrison.

The book selections were inspired by Barbershop Books, a Harlem nonprofit that’s had great success installing barbershop libraries in New York. Nakia White, co-founder of BookTini, said the idea dovetailed perfectly with the club’s mission as well as her own personal goals.

“I love books,” said White, an administrative analyst and book blogger who grew up in East Oakland. “Reading opened whole worlds for me. And it wasn’t just about learning. Books can be entertaining. I think sometimes people don’t know how much fun reading can be. Anything we can do to put books in kids’ hands, we try to do.”

Last year, BookTini donated books from the sixth-grade reading list to an Oakland junior high and threw the kids an ice cream party. In previous years, it gave books to women’s shelters and facilitated backpack giveaways to underserved schools and other organizations. In all, it’s donated more than 1,000 books to kids in Oakland and Richmond.

BookTini, founded six years ago by White and a few childhood friends, now has chapters in Sacramento, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., with a monthly newsletter and online forum where women (mostly African-American women in their 20s and 30s) can discuss books, cocktails, and whatever else crosses their minds.

BookTini member Danielle Chappele, who works in IT, said the club’s community service efforts are the primary appeal for her.

“When I was a kid, I was an avid reader, but no one around me read,” she said. “For me, reading changed everything. If there’s something we can do to put books in the hands of kids who might not get them otherwise, I am all over it.”

Lawrence was noticeably moved by the club’s generosity. As a kid, he struggled with reading and felt his literary education was hopelessly inadequate. To be able to give boys books, and a safe place to read them, is something he’s long hoped for, he said.

 “I want these boys to think, to learn, to have a sense that the future is something to look forward to,” he said. “I want them to do more than just look at words. I want them to see the bigger picture, and imagine themselves a part of it. … When I heard about this club’s offer, I jumped on it.”

Learn more about BookTini at Black Sheep barbershop is at 2368 High St., Oakland. The public can donate to the BookTini/Black Sheep book wish list on Amazon:

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