Note: This piece is part of Austin Monthly’s series “Celebrating Black Austin,” which is dedicated to highlighting some of the most impactful leaders, creators, and personalities from across the city’s Black community.
When I told Mrs. Katrina Brooks, the owner of Black Pearl Books, that I was excited to talk with her, she laughed. Hard. In fact, Mrs. Brooks laughed so hard that it prompted me to tell her that, yes, I was being sincere. “Really?” she replied. “I’m not doing anything that anyone else couldn’t do.”
But ask anyone in Austin’s literary scene and they’ll tell you: That is categorically false. If you’ve kept up with the news coverage about Black Pearl Books, an Austin-based indie bookshop specializing in books written by authors whose voices are often forced into the periphery, you know that Mrs. Brooks is a powerhouse. She’s a historian, a racial equity educator, a business owner many times over, and a wife and mother. And yet, that’s not what she sees. Because when she says anyone can do what she does, she’s talking less about the many hats she wears and more about listening—to your instincts and to God.
Indeed, Black Pearl’s story feels like a testament to divine timing. The store opened as a pop-up and online shop in November 2019, just months ahead of the extrajudicial murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and countless others in 2020 that spurred a summer of racial reckoning and sent millions of Americans in search of insight from Black writers and thinkers on topics like antiracism and incarceration. Mrs. Brooks’ shop was so uniquely destined for that exact moment that, overnight, Black Pearl was inundated with orders. Eventually, the shop had to stop taking new purchases because it was having trouble keeping up with the myriad of new customers flooding in. At the height of the summer rush, Mrs. Brooks enlisted her entire family to help sort through the stacks of books that filled her home.
Then, right on cue, she was offered the opportunity to move her home operation into the Ten Thousand Villages storefront on Burnet Road. All of this seemingly overnight success is one reason why Mrs. Brooks so often recites Ephesians 3:20: “[God] is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.”
As we talked, Mrs. Brooks told me how, as she was opening Black Pearl, she was a part of a Bible study group that concluded with its members praying. During those nine months, she said her personal prayer was “to just be able to stay behind God—let him lead, let me not run ahead…I’m constantly trying to make sure I don’t run ahead of God, but that I’m following by faith.”
Which isn’t to say that she doesn’t recognize the work she and her family have put into making her dream for Black Pearl come to fruition. Rather, she simply recognizes that being able to listen to your calling is a strength. “I think for people, in general, that’s the struggle because sometimes we’ll know what to do,” she says. “We’ll know what the right thing to do is and we’ll see signs and know what God wants us to be, but we don’t listen.” In that vein, Mrs. Brooks credits Black Pearl’s successes to faith and this act of listening.
Despite her shop’s overwhelming growth over the past 16 months, Mrs. Brooks sees her work at Black Pearl as part of a larger arc that began more than 150 years ago with prohibitions against literacy for enslaved Americans. That’s why her vision for Black Pearl bends toward a future that is centered in community through literacy work, as well as writing and publishing workshops. Reading her previous interviews where she defines racism for reporters and browsing her website’s upcoming events, you see that this is work she’s already started and which is very much in alignment with a bigger plan. Whether you’re a frequent customer of hers or are interested in learning more about Black Pearl’s unique offerings, she’s ready to welcome every Austinite into the fold.
Lauren Lluveras is a PhD student at UT Austin’s Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. Pre-pandemic, you could find her at the Aristocrat Lounge making some very important points about Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 hit single, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen).”