10 book people you've gotta know in Austin's literary world
Yes, we know, it’s the Live Music Capital of the World. But Austin also is home to an undeniably rich and layered community of book creators, sellers, boosters and protectors. Meet some of the Central Texans shaping the city’s current literary scene.
Co-owner, Reverie Books (reveriebooks.com)
Perkins hadn’t planned to open a bookstore amid a pandemic. But Perkins — who has a degree in forestry, toured as a singer-songwriter, worked at the University of Texas and runs a nonprofit — also knew the time was right for her. Pairing with business partner David Schunk, Perkins launched cozy South Austin shop Reverie Books in September. Its stock includes new titles for adults and children with a strong focus on marginalized communities; gently used and vintage books; and a selection of cards and themed gifts.
“It’s really a vehicle for giving back to the community and painting a picture of the world we want to see,” she said.
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In the short time Reverie has been open, Perkins has partnered with nearby Crockett High School to provide customer-sponsored sets of books for classrooms; created a fund to pay for queer-themed books for teens who wouldn’t otherwise have access; and hosted a drop site for BRAVE Communities’ recent citywide book drive for diverse titles.
The store also announced a partnership with Austin’s How Now Booking agency to launch a Banned Books Club that begins in late April.
Executive director, Texas Book Festival (texasbookfestival.org)
Kim first got the nudge to consider taking the helm of the Texas Book Festival from fellow story lovers — her book club. A devoted bibliophile, Kim’s career had thus far focused on teaching and education. Leading a festival dedicated to showcasing contemporary works appealed after years of studying and teaching older classics, she said.
When Kim arrived on the festival team in 2013, she oversaw a staff of four. Nearly a decade later, that’s doubled. More employees have supported continued expansion of the event, which typically occupies the Capitol grounds and surrounding streets over one fall weekend. But they've also bolstered the festival's year-round work in literacy outreach. The Reading Rock Stars program, for example, has given out more than 133,000 books and brought numerous authors to Title 1 schools.
Having Austin as a backdrop is a boost, Kim said: “I think it’s such an intellectual city. You have a lot of people who are interested in culture and arts and books. … I also think it’s a thriving book city because people come out and support authors and events.”
Author and reviewer
In the sometimes-cutthroat world of literary Twitter, Iglesias’ feed frequently serves as a balm for writers and readers: “Remember that days when you feel like you have nothing to celebrate are the days in which you’re putting in the work that’ll get you future celebrations.” It might also be funny, dark or downright scary, a pastiche mirrored in award-winning fiction he’s termed “barrio noir.” Iglesias is a regular reviewer for outlets including NPR and the book review editor for PANK magazine (co-founded by Roxane Gay), and he was nominated for Bram Stoker and Locus honors for his 2018 horror-meets-crime tale “Coyote Songs.”
Major publisher Hachette snapped up his newest, “The Devil Takes You Home,” set to arrive Aug. 2. It's already seeing a boost from the likes of “The Only Good Indians” author and 2020 Texas Writer Award honoree Stephen Graham Jones. Why are books part of Austin’s ecosystem? “UT and all the other higher education institutions play a role because they bring in people from all over the world — like me! — but it’s also because of our great indie bookstores like BookPeople, Malvern Books, Resistencia Books, BookWoman, Monkeywrench Books, and even Half Price Books, to name a few,” he said. “And then there’s our great public library system. We love books.”
Carolyn Foote and Becky Calzada
Co-founders, FReadom Fighters (freadom.us)
In October, state Rep. Matt Krause released a list of more than 800 books, asking school districts to report whether their libraries contained titles that might make students feel “discomfort” due to themes of identity, gender, race or sex. Retired Austin librarian Foote, a freelance library consultant, and Leander district library coordinator Calzada sprang into action. Together with two librarians who have remained anonymous, they formed the #FReadom Fighters, dedicated to battling censorship.
In a matter of months, it’s evolved into an advocacy group with national reach and was recently featured on CNN. Foote spoke at a March rally at the Capitol, saying: “A library can be the best of democracy. It represents all of us, we the people.”
In addition to social media campaigns to amplify a wide range of books, the group provides templates for letters to officials — a recent push resulted in missives sent to 26 school boards — and sample answers to questions that often arise in book challenges. “We want to be sure libraries represent all students in their care, because we know the power of books to help students know they are not alone in their experiences,” Foote said.
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Author, curator of the Heartdrum imprint (cynthialeitichsmith.com)
Prolific author and beloved champion of writers Smith has long fostered more inclusive literature for young people. She’s done it through her books, like her multiple award-winning Y.A. novel “Hearts Unbroken.” And she’s boosted it through her advocacy with groups such as the national nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Her nurturing of others’ talents took new shape in 2021, when she teamed with HarperCollins to launch Heartdrum, the first imprint devoted to books created by Native writers and illustrators for young people. In its inaugural year, multiple Heartdrum titles won American Library Association Youth Media awards, kid-lit’s highest honors.
Given her long-standing focus on bridge-building, it makes sense that she lauds Austin’s creative community. “Talk about a recipe for success! In addition to multiple flagships — BookPeople, the Texas Library Association and Texas Book Festival — we're blessed with a formidable regional organization in the Writers' League of Texas and one of the strongest chapters of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, plus the Writing Barn, a nationally acclaimed literary arts education center,” she said.
She continued: “That said, welcoming, effective institutions are built by dedicated, hardworking book lovers. In the creative community, we're so much more than collegial. The friendships and cooperative efforts in Austin are a genuine force in the universe. We're committed not only to our own literary works, but also to lifting up one another and collaborating as leaders in the wider national and international conversations of books."
General manager, BookPeople (bookpeople.com)
Rejsek occupies the one position at BookPeople with an eye on every aspect of the bookstore, an anchor of the Sixth and Lamar intersection and the largest independent bookseller in Texas. She arrived there Dec. 16, 2019, after stints at Barnes and Noble at both the store and corporate levels and, more recently, producing events for the Texas Tribune. A few short months later, COVID-19 shutdowns would dramatically alter day-to-day operations. The hundreds of events the store hosts each year moved online, as did all sales, triggering a forced revamp of the BookPeople website into an easier channel for customers to buy books.
Two years later, Rejsek and her team are taking measured steps back into more familiar territory, hosting a handful of distanced in-person events along with virtual gatherings. Browsers and buyers are welcomed in both arenas. “Our goal is to turn back into the community meeting place that people know us for and love us for, and to create those experiences with authors and celebrities and people of note who write books,” she said.
Bret Anthony Johnston
Director, Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas (michener.utexas.edu)
The Michener Center forges writers whose poems, novels, stories and scripts are likely to shape their disciplines. Its recent graduates include Nathan Harris, whose “The Sweetness of Water” made both Oprah’s Book Club and President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Steering the ship is “Remember Me Like This” author Johnston, who came to UT in 2017, after 11 years directing the creative writing program at Harvard University.
What attracted the Corpus Christi native back to Texas? He said: “The extraordinary community— the Michener fellows and faculty, the staff and the UT brass, all of whom see the making of literary art as revelatory and necessary, a vocation as vital as anything else.”
For Johnston, that’s also what elevates Austin: “From the readers and the writers to the librarians and the booksellers, from the breathtaking downtown library to the smaller neighborhood branches to the astounding diversity of our various independent book stores, Austin is a reader’s utopia,” he said.
Owner, Black Pearl Books (blackpearlbooks.com)
When the Statesman first checked in with Black Pearl Books, owner Brooks was working to keep up with an explosion of orders. It was the summer of 2020, and the Black Lives Matter movement had fueled a surge of interest in Black authors and supporting Black-owned bookstores. Black Pearl Books was in its infancy, with a few pop-up sales and orders fulfilled out of Brooks’ home.
Fortunately, that interest sustained, and Brooks moved her operations into a section of Ten Thousand Villages’ store on Burnet Road as she worked to fulfill her mission of not just selling books, but creating community. She helped select most of the nearly 500 new titles the Austin Public Library bought from Black Pearl Books as part of a Library Foundation grant to expand its African American collection. She’s also partnered with United Way and SAFE and recently launched the Redacted Reads Book Club focused on banned or challenged books.
And on Feb. 1, the store reached another key milestone, opening its first dedicated storefront at 7112 Burnet Road.
Amanda Eyre Ward
Ward published seven novels before her New York Times-bestselling “The Jetsetters,” spotlighting an often-funny, always-dysfunctional family cruise. Tapped as a Reese’s Book Pick, it was also named a best book of 2020 from Esquire. She also co-authored “The Sober Lush,” a chatty, intimate guide to enjoying life’s blissful pleasures sans alcohol.
Arriving next: “The Lifeguards,” set in Austin and following a trio of mothers whose sons return from a late-night swim with a secret. She launches it April 4 at BookPeople with fellow Austin author Chandler Baker (“The Husbands”).
(Ward also is a freelance contributor to the Statesman.)
Inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters this year, Ward said she doesn’t think there’s a better place to be a reader or writer than Austin: “The supportive literary community and endless supply of stories makes me feel lucky every single day that this is my home."