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Black Austin Bookstore Owner Encourages Continued Focus On Racial Justice After 2020 Protests

Katrina Brooks, owner of Black Pearl Books bookstore, in north central Austin, TX on July 257 2021. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Katrina Brooks, owner of Black Pearl Books bookstore, in north central Austin, TX on July 257 2021. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

In May 2020, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a Black man. The murder sparked demonstrations around the country for racial justice. It also spurred interest in topics like anti-racism and encouraged people to support Black-owned businesses.

That was over a year ago. What about now?

Katrina Brooks owns Black Pearl Books in Austin. She opened the business as a pop-up in November 2019 but now has a permanent location inside of Ten Thousand Villages on Burnet Road. Brooks calls what happened to her business in June 2020 a "June boom" because of the heightened interest she saw in "books about anti-racism and the African-American plight of people in history."

But Brooks says that intensity and interest did not last into 2021. She says some people did want to continue pursuing racial justice topics they started exploring in 2020, but others were "just [saying], 'Hey, this is what everyone is reading, this is what I'm supposed to do.'"

Brooks says she hopes the awareness that was raised in 2020 will keep people attuned to racial justice issues so that "it doesn't take another huge event" to "bring it back to the forefront of people's minds."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Brooks about the ebbs and flows of her Black-owned business.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT's Jennifer Stayton: Why did you open Black Pearl Books?

Black Pearl Books owner Katrina Brooks: Our mission then and still today is to get out into the community, get these books out there so people have access to them and really just raise awareness that they exist.

Do you notice ebbs and flows in the rhythm or strength or “busyness” of your business depending on what's happening in society at large? So, for example, last year after the murder of George Floyd, was there more interest in your books?

Absolutely, 100%. Last summer, I call it “June boom.” With the death of George Floyd, and in the middle of a pandemic and all of these other things happening, we saw a huge influx of orders coming in and people really seeking and searching out books about anti-racism and the African-American plight of people in history. And we saw a lot of that.

Absolutely, there are ebbs and flows. And as you can imagine, since that time, obviously, that has leveled out. Those that continue to seek and continue to want to learn are there. At the time, it was the people just [saying], "Hey, this is what everyone is reading, this is what I'm supposed to do."

At the same time, there was a big boost not only in seeking to educate oneself, but it was also a big boost in general, just supporting Black-owned businesses.

Do you feel like the interest in Black-owned businesses that you were talking about is still here?

That's an interesting question. So, not to the same degree. Yes and no is the short answer for that. I think what happened last summer really raised awareness of Black-owned businesses. So, I think that people that actively sought to utilize a Black-owned or a minority business have continued to do that.

By that same token, there are people that said, "I'm going to do this, or I'm going to order from this restaurant. And OK, I did my part." Or you just kind of forget and you go back to your normal routine because sometimes it does take that extra step. It's a lot easier to hop online and place an order with a big box company retailer than it is to really seek out and say, "Oh, I'm going to make sure I'm ordering from a Black-owned business."

The interesting thing is Black-owned businesses have always been around. It's not a new phenomenon. We’ve been here. It's the heightened awareness that came last summer of people really seeking that and saying, "Look, I want to do my part."

How does it feel to you, though, that for some people, the interest is driven by a major national event that captures everyone's attention?

Children aren’t learning — they're missing pieces in school. They're not getting it at home because the parents did not learn it. Yes, it has taken events to bring about awareness. If you don't live in these communities, if you don't on a regular basis have community with people of color, then these are probably issues or things that you are not aware of.

On one hand, it's like, yes, the event itself is heartbreaking. And the fact that it took that to raise that awareness is heartbreaking. But it's encouraging now that people are aware. What do you do with that? It's one thing to say, "OK, I'm going to read a book." But how does that book change your mindset, and what do you do after reading that book?

That's the piece that for me and, as a bookstore, we are really focused on. It's wonderful to have sold books last year and the amount of orders we received. But we're really looking at: What are the next steps? How do we move the needle forward so that it doesn't take another huge event for people to recognize or to bring it back to the forefront of people's minds?

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

I feel very lucky to have been born and raised right here in Austin, Texas. An English teacher at my high school, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, once suggested to the class that we tune in to KUT 90.5 for Paul Ray’s “Twine Time.” I have been a public radio fan ever since.