Katrina Brooks has felt overwhelmed lately. She runs a small business in Austin, Black Pearl Books, and late in the spring, she started to receive so many orders that she wondered if they might be fake.
The numbers were massive, six or seven orders a minute. At one point, she asked her husband if he thought an automated bot could be artificially inflating their sales.
It wasn’t. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement had surged. A pandemic-frozen world erupted in outrage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Mike Ramos and more — Black Americans killed at the hands of white police officers or vigilantes. As part of the movement, a social media call to support Black-owned businesses spread far and wide. Some lists included Black Pearl Books.
As the orders continued to grow, Brooks had moments of disbelief and moments of sheer terror.
"What do we do now?" she asked herself. "How do we handle this?"
Mind you, Black Pearl Books is a small operation, with no physical storefront. Since launching in November, Brooks has worked out of her home, selling reads through an online store and at pop-up events. Her last pop-up happened in early March, before everything shut down. She was not prepared for this kind of rush, however well-intentioned.
Brooks founded Black Pearl Books to become a community cradle, where anyone can find stories about themselves in the pages on sale. Instead, she’s navigating sudden, daunting success amid the limitations of a global health crisis.
Summer burns on. Brooks had to freeze new orders for a bit to catch up, but they’re back up now. She, her loved ones and a group of interns hustle in the family garage, emptied of cars to become the store’s de facto storeroom.
Brooks has struggled to live up to her own high expectations, she says. But she’s figuring it out. A Bible verse in Ephesians about abundance keeps coming back to her.
"Gratitude, I’m just filled with so much gratitude," Brooks says. "The support that I’ve gotten, not only from family and friends and extended circles and then community and then customers," but from strangers emailing to say, "I know you’re swamped, but I just want to encourage you."
Talking about those messages, her voice catches and she tears up.
"You don’t expect that. To have all these people rooting for you? I don’t know where that comes from," Brooks says.
It’s been gratifying, and difficult. God’s plan is bigger than now, Brooks reminds herself, bigger than the movement and bigger than the moment.
Or, as the message of Ephesians 3:20 goes: He will do abundantly more than anything you can ever ask or imagine.
‘Everybody has a story to tell’
Brooks grew up on Chicago’s South Side. After attending Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black college, she got her MBA from the University of Texas at Dallas. She’s done the corporate thing, worked in public relations and marketing, done some consulting. But Brooks says she’s an entrepreneur at heart. Before Black Pearl, she ran an interior design business and a retail shop for vintage and repurposed furniture.
After some time in California, she came to Austin, where her family’s been for three years. Here, Brooks noticed a gap in the bookstores she found.
"There are other indies, but not one that focuses on diversity and inclusion," she says.
Education has always been a passion for her. Stories are a way to connect with a place you’ve never been or to people you’ve never met, Brooks says.
The power of words has struck her with special power as a mother of two, a boy named Elijah, 13, and a girl named Elisha, 12. Brooks always knew her kids had a command of vocabulary, but she had an "aha" moment when she noticed them explaining different words to their friends. "Why is that?" she wondered.
"The thing I kept coming back to — it’s because they read," she says. "They’re always in a book. They always have access to books, and not every child does."
Brooks also thinks some kids just haven’t found the right book, or one with characters that look like them.
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Then, last summer, the family took a monthlong road trip and stopped in Washington, D.C. Brooks always tries to stop by an indie bookstore on travels, and she found a Black-owned shop in the nation’s capital. She’d been in plenty of other bookstores, but this time, something new clicked, like the last puzzle piece of an idea.
So, Brooks made what she was looking for in Austin and named it Black Pearl Books. Rather than opening a brick-and-mortar from the get-go, she wanted to get out into the community with pop-ups. Visit the shop’s website and you’ll see a mission statement touting the importance of community to the venture.
"I like to explain it as this accordion-style fan," Brooks says of her holistic approach. "At the root of it, at the foundation, you have literature, books. As you start to fan out and open this accordion-style fan, there are these waves. Each one means something."
Brooks starts with representation — people having access to books in which they see themselves, whether that’s race, sexual orientation or religion. "There are people out there who look like you, who sound like you, who have life experiences that you’ve had," she says. "You can find that in a book."
Another wave: providing a platform for independent authors. "Everybody has a story to tell. Some people put it in a book, some people don’t," Brooks says. She wants Black Pearl to be a place where authors have their stories told.
She’d also like to start a nonprofit arm down the line, focusing on education. Mentorships and writers workshops are part of the dream, too, perhaps at a physical location someday.
"You have so many people who want to write a book and don’t know where to start," she says.
And then, Brooks says, there’s legacy. "When I think of my ancestors and how they were not allowed to read, and then I look around and am surrounded by books," she says, she sees it as "a legacy from the past that represents freedom and liberation."
It’s also a legacy she’s creating for her kids and future generations.
"Not to necessarily become booksellers, but for them to see an entrepreneur, for them to be educated and have access without limits and for them to understand that they have the permission to go even further," she says. "I feel like I’m a bridge between the legacy of the past and the legacy of the future."
Brooks wants her community to thrive. So, she’s planted herself, she says, hoping to start a change.
A rare gem
Brooks and her family make a point to shop with Black-owned businesses. The swell of calls to support them — it’s amazing, she says, but "people of color have known. We have supported each other along the way." Black-owned businesses tend to get overlooked, she says, and Brooks hopes this momentum helps level the playing field.
"I think Black-owned businesses — people of color, period, they have so much to offer," she says.
Black Pearl’s top seller lately has been "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi. Lots of orders, too, for "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo and "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo. Brooks also recommends "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander and "Uprooting Racism" by Paul Kivel. "They really speak to the times that we're in right now," she says.
All of those are books were found recently on antiracism reading lists after the police killing of George Floyd, and many rose on bestseller lists. Popular titles customers bought online from Black Pearl are now on back order, in some cases, as publishers are inundated with demand, so Brooks doesn’t always have enough copies physically in stock.
"The end consumer just knows, ‘I ordered it, I want to read it,’" she says.
She’s been getting emails from distributors about delivery delays. One order went out but could not get to the next stop on its route because of protesters blocking the road, Brooks says.
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On top of it all, the pandemic has complicated Black Pearl’s boom. Having to freeze orders was a big one, sure. But building community is so important to Brooks, and she’s bummed that she can’t connect with customers in person.
"You feel this sense of disarray," she says.
In addition to kind notes, people have emailed Brooks and asked if they can volunteer their time to help fill orders. As cases of COVID-19 rose, she’s been mindful of whom she’s bringing into her family’s space. But she’s shifting her mindset, she says, appreciative of the virtual, nontraditional community.
Still, the orders have to go out. Her mother, Vivian, 71, comes over to help, and Elijah and Elisha pitch in for Mom. She’s put together a team of paid teen interns, too, to be her hands and feet and move more books out the door. They come over, and Brooks takes their temperatures and makes them wash their hands. Everyone wears a mask.
"There is a solution to every problem out there," she says with a smile.
Her husband, Eric, has been filming a little as Black Pearl’s story unfurls. He thinks that what his wife is doing hasn’t been done before, and that it’s bigger than just selling books.
Brooks tries to see her story with an overhead view, of the things that have played into where she is today. Earlier business ventures. A trip to a bookstore across the country, when she couldn’t have known that a year later, she’d be a successful bookseller. Even as her home is stacked high with books and she’s answering late-night emails, Brooks knows our stories rarely make sense while we’re living them.
Sometimes, it takes something negative to happen in order to move you in a positive way, she says: "There's truly this movement I feel that's happening."
Oh, and about the name. A black pearl is a rare gem, Brooks explains, and "pearls go through a lot of pressure and resistance to be formed." To Brooks, the black pearl symbolizes strength and endurance. Out of struggles, a rare gem.
"But," she laughs, "you're gonna have to go through some stuff."