When I first tried to find Blackbird Books & Spirits, I was in the wrong building. I watched the restaurant customers around me intently, trying to spot when one of them ducked into my hidden destination. Glancing around at paintings hung on the wall, I tried to guess which one could also serve as a door and came embarrassingly close to testing a couple. But, hey, looking for a speakeasy brings out the amateur detective in all of us.
A note for future visitors: Blackbird Books & Spirits is located in the Katy Building near Belton’s MKT Railroad Depot, and absolutely not behind a painting in the Railway Express Diner (those are real paintings, and you shouldn’t touch them). It is, however, found behind an oversized painting of Texas’s first female governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, which you will need to push aside to enter. Blackbird opened this June, after owner Kris Snyder decided she’d like to help create a space in Belton, a city of just 23,000 outside of Temple, that’s more typically found in a larger city.
Walking into Blackbird (don’t forget to slide the painting shut behind you), you feel as though you’ve entered something very different from the brightly lit and bustling Katy Building lobby. Blackbird’s walls are painted black, and the bookshelves cast long shadows in the moody overhead lighting. Heavy, dark furniture is arranged to create a few distinct sitting areas: a row of leather armchairs near the large bar, a cozy couch in front of the fake fireplace, and a mix of large wooden tables with bench seating and high tops near the back of the store. The shelves are labeled by genre and feature a mix of popular titles and newer editions of classics that span history, mystery, romance, sci-fi, YA and more—all available for purchase.
The menu boasts a handful of playful cocktail options, including a “Bramble” Stoker, a smoked-rosemary whiskey sour; a banana pudding martini inspired by Dolly Parton; and the Zelda, a paloma of sorts, intended “for real writers.” At least one cocktail is served with a smoking dry-ice display, and a couple come in fun glassware—one shaped like a cauldron. The bartenders are friendly and conversational when I order my Murder on the Orient Espresso, a macabre take on an espresso martini.
Snyder wasn’t exactly sure her idea for a speakeasy bookstore would work out. “Starting this was a very long, ongoing panic attack for quite a few months,” she said. “I was wondering if I might be alone in my want for a space with softer music, smaller crowds, and plenty of bookshelves.”
With an already-niche customer base of book lovers who drink, opting for a somewhat hidden storefront complicated things all the more. “The speakeasy happened by accident, actually,” Snyder said. “I knew I wouldn’t have any windows so instead of trying to fight the lack of natural light that most bookstores have, I leaned into the dark. Ma Ferguson is a personal hero and I wanted to display her somehow, so that’s how I landed on the door idea. It was never really supposed to be hidden.”
During my visit, Blackbird serves as the backdrop for a group of laughing teenagers playing an intricate board game on one of the back tables, a formally dressed pair chatting sort of awkwardly who I’d guess to be on a first date, a patron very excitedly explaining the concept of the store to an elderly couple, and a lone reader cozied up in an armchair. I leave without a book (I can’t justify a purchase given the unread stack on my bedside table), but with a sense that I could return and readily find a sought-after title next time around. The shop seems to have served the exact purpose Snyder intended: an urbane spot to gather, drink, and read. All you have to do is find it first.