How A Third Ward Bookshop Makes Black Readers The Main Characters

Welcome to Indie Bookstore Week, Texas Monthly’s salute to the bookshops that have shaped the lives of our readers and writers.

Like many book lovers, I grew up bubbling with excitement for the annual Scholastic Book Fair at school. My mom was a teacher, and she prompted me to circle the books I wanted to order from the paper catalog. When the day came, I’d gather my selections and proudly present my couch-cushion coins to the cashier for a bookmark or two. In addition to new installments about the perennially unchaperoned Boxcar Children and the disheveled Amelia Bedelia, I was enamored with the Baby-Sitters Club, specifically Jessi, the lone Black girl in the after-school babysitting business. I’d read about Jessi’s relatively carefree life as a babysitting ballet dancer to balance out the time I spent reading about the weighted existence of Addy, an ingenious runaway slave in the American Girl series. At barely ten years old, I was already trained in the craft of finding “the Black one,” seeking out the lone Black character in a sea of white. I continued this practice for thirty years—until the day my book shopping experience changed, when I walked into Houston’s Kindred Stories, a store that prioritizes selling books by Black writers in a space that caters to Black readers.

Kindred Stories began as an online bookstore in early 2021, when founder Terri Hamm decided to create a literary space for Black, brown, and marginalized voices. With the help of community arts juggernaut Project Row Houses to manage overhead costs, the bookstore opened its brick-and-mortar store on Stuart Street in the historically Black Third Ward that September. “I could have opened a bookstore in the Heights in a second,” said Hamm. “But I really wanted it to be in a Black neighborhood because I just feel like Black neighborhoods deserve these types of amenities. They deserve these types of spaces.” 

When I first opened the door to the sand-colored row house, it was as if I’d stepped into a BIPOC Narnia. Suddenly, “standard” American books by white people seemed to have disappeared, leaving rows of books by Black American writers, immigrants, and other people of color in their place. I felt my jaw soften and my shoulders relax down and away from my ears, away from their default defensive stance, my learned way of existing in a hostile world. For months, I had heard about this new Black-owned bookshop that exclusively carried books written by members of marginalized groups, but it was another heartbeat-skipping thing to see it with my own eyes and feel it in my own soul. As my eyes snagged on works by Maya Angelou, Kiese Laymon, and my personal favorite, Samantha Irby, I knew the Kindred experience would be a connection, not just a transaction.

Reimagining the bookstore experience for Black people and people of color feels nothing short of radical. Our current version of society does not afford many spaces for Black people to commune over a shared love of books, of stories, and care for one another. For Hamm, the simple presence of the bookstore is an act of resistance. “Providing access to marginalized voices is even more important in our state’s current climate of book bans and the [Houston ISD] superintendent’s decision to turn some libraries into disciplinary rooms,” she says. “The reason we exist is to make sure that there’s another option for access to the stories that kids see themselves in.”

Kindred has an unwavering dedication to selling books by marginalized voices, but it welcomes readers from all backgrounds to connect. Stevens Orozco is the operations lead and community liaison at Kindred Stories, and he touts the store’s commitment to building a Black-owned space that welcomes diversity. “We do know that Houston is [one of] the most diverse cit[ies] in the country, so we know anybody can walk through those doors,” said Orozco. “It was always that consciousness of making sure that there’s room for everybody.”

I left my first trip to Kindred with the wildly popular Love in Color, a stunning romance collection by Nigerian British author Bolu Babalola, and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by Black American ZZ Packer. Since I did not feel rushed, I had the time to discover Packer and her short story collection in-store. The shop is a safe space where Black shoppers can read, wonder, and connect without burdens we may experience elsewhere: inside, you don’t need to explain your Blackness. You don’t need to worry about being followed, watched, or surveilled. There is no such thing as code-switching. You are the code.

Wale Okerayi, a psychotherapist and Kindred Stories enthusiast, told me about moving back to Houston during the COVID-19 pandemic and craving connection. She heard about an upcoming book talk with novelist LaToya Watkins, and Okerayi—despite her own introversion and lack of friends at the time—decided to go. Sitting among other Black women talking about what it means to be a Southern Black woman in the publishing space, Okerayi felt transformed. “It was a very validating conversation to me as someone who has gone to a lot of predominantly white schools and white spaces.” Now Okerayi partners with the store to lead Kindred Sessions, a series that explores mental health care with visiting authors. “No matter what’s going on and how bad you think things are, we are still alive!” YA author Liara Tamani told Okerayi in one installment. “There are always things to appreciate, whether it’s friendship and love and light, or just looking up at the sky and seeing a butterfly passing by, feeling the breeze on our skin.” 

Recently, walking into Kindred’s “In Gratitude & Self-Preservation” journaling and meditation event, I could hear the celebratory chatter before I even opened the door. Inside, the lighting and the mood were warm as dozens of women—mostly Black women, along with people from other marginalized backgrounds—chatted with their yoga mats slung over their shoulders. Our closeness felt intimate and welcoming. I can’t explain the physics, but I do believe the walls of Kindred Stories widened to accommodate this cultivated community. 

I think of my childhood book fair memories fondly (and mourn that the Scholastic experience has changed for students today). But it feels like a real homecoming every time I pan the Kindred Stories shop and realize it is completely filled with books by Black writers, featuring Black characters. While Kindred Stories welcomes all readers, Black readers are its main characters.

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