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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Editor's note: 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.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.
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