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South Austin bookstore becomes a place for all to be 'seen, heard and represented'

Thaïs Perkins opened Reverie Books in September at 5330 Menchaca Road. (Addie Broyles)

Reverie Books opened just in time.

Sure, the supply chain is out of whack and a global pandemic has been raging for 18 months, but bookstore owner Thaïs Perkins says a queer, feminist and social justice-centered store couldn't have happened without all the changes that the coronavirus pandemic brought and a chance run-in with a used bookstore owner who was ready to retire.

First, a little about Perkins. She's the former executive director of TreeFolks, an Austin nonprofit dedicated to planting trees in urban and rural areas. She left that job in 2019 without knowing that a year later, she would be running a pod school for the neighborhood kids. (Her children are 11 and 16.)

"It was Looney Tunes."

This wasn't her first stint as a teacher.

Reverie Books in South Austin has a reading area and a children's area. Owner Thais Perkins says she wants to host indoor events as soon as it's COVID safe. (Addie Broyles)

Perkins has a masters degree in forestry and grew up in the "middle of nowhere Louisiana." By 17, she'd graduated from high school and was living in Oregon, working as a singer-songwriter. "I lived on the road for years and got real broke and sick and tired," she says.

She eventually went back to school and became a university instructor and researcher, focusing first on swamplands and then on watersheds. After working in environmental regulation at a water treatment plant in Austin, Perkins became the executive director of TreeFolks in 2014.

During all these life and career changes, Perkins was making an annual pilgrimage to the Kerrville Folk Festival.

"It is a Mecca for American songwriters," she says. "It was legendary, you know you could just show up. It used to be where you'd show up with your CD, and they'd put you on staff."

Reverie Books sells a variety of notebooks, notecards, stickers, magnets and other items that aren't books, but most of the store is dedicated to books. (Addie Broyles)

That's where she met David Schunck, a Vietnam war vet turned "peace-loving hippie" who ran Good Buy Books for decades. "He wanted to retire, but he didn't fully want to let go, and I was looking for my next gig," she says.

Why a bookstore?

"I have always loved bookstores as community places, places of healing. When I grew up as a troubled teen in Louisiana, bookstores are where I would go to feel solace and to explore what it meant to be me. I'd find the feminist bookstores with Ms. magazine on the shelf, it was a place where I could kind of hide out."

A 70-year-old Vietnam vet and a 40-something lesbian, it turns out they have quite a lot to say to each other. They are both songwriters who see books as a way of building community. Schunck still has some shelves of used books in the back of the store, and the rest of the shelves are filled with contemporary and classic books, zines and non-traditional titles, puzzles, a few well-curated toys, notecards, magnets and other gifts.

Reverie means "a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream."

"That was my dream for this: I wanted something for everybody, but I especially wanted kids who felt marginalized and not represented to be able to come in and feel like they have a place. And it's working."

A customer left this note in Perkins' suggestion box. (Addie Broyles)

Perkins reaches over to the wall by her computer to peel off a handwritten note on a blue notecard. "This bookstore is my new favorite place. I feel seen, heard and represented," the patron wrote.

She keeps this reminder by her desk so she can remember why she opened the store in the first place.

"You know, this is risky. It's not nothing," she says. "I've had a lot of professional positions and made decent money for my family, but this isn't that and it may never be that. My wife is the breadwinner, and I'm not used to being someone who doesn't."

Perkins points out the connection between starting a bookstore and spending all those years on the road as a singer-songwriter. "There's always a balance between how much of what I want to achieve in the world and how much I want to sacrifice for a salary versus what I want to get out of this life."

She says the whole family has been on board with the project, especially now that the sense of community is building.

Reverie Books is at 5330 Menchaca Road in South Austin. (Addie Broyles)

Having just come from the non-profit world, Perkins is constantly thinking about giving back to the community. She makes donations to non-profits, including Planned Parenthood and the Gay Straight Alliance at the nearby Crockett High School. "It's hard to sustain but it's an important part of what we're doing."

In her little corner of the parking lot in front, she's hosting some outdoor events that will eventually move indoors once COVID-19 subsides, where the rolling bookshelves can make way for chairs. Her neighbors at Captain Quackenbush's Coffeehouse next door have brought her pie, and Austin author Lauren Hough is hosting a presentation there on Friday night.

Customers can also rent out the space for a private shopping session or a date night, including cheese, wine and charcuterie.

Perkins says that hers is one of many indie bookstores that have opened during the pandemic, which from a commercial perspective seems counter-intuitive.

But when thinking from the point of view of what's best for the community, it's exactly what we needed.

Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self-healing and creativity. Check it out here.

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