Bookseller Nikki High did not receive a warm reception when she first set her formidable mind to open a bookstore in her adopted hometown of Pasadena, CA a year or so ago.
The property manager of one attractive Pasadena location was enthused on the phone, telling Nikki that a bookstore was exactly what the neighborhood needed. The gentleman was standing outside the front door of the property when Nikki arrived to meet him and discuss the terms. “He took one look at me, and his face just instantly fell,” says Nikki. And so the deal, which was never quite a deal anyway, was off. Just like that.
But Nikki paid it no never mind. She dried her tears, dusted herself off, and soon landed a petite jewel-box of a retail location, walking-distance from her home (just like that). She named it Octavia’s Bookshelf after the brilliant, Pasadena-born author Octavia Butler. The Pasadenan version of a Sicilian message soon followed: a bag of fresh dog poo laid on the threshold. A second similar message was left at the back door, this time without the bag. This hostile greeting was followed by a burglary. Nikki recalls, “They didn’t just take the cash: they took the cash register!”
Did this difficult passage stop Nikki? Well, what do you think? Octavia’s Bookshelf opened in February, 2023 and the joint’s been jumpin’ ever since, open seven days a week and serving the full spectrum of readers. This is NOT the house of amazon.com! The floor is softened by a pastel kilim rug. Colorful hand-woven fabrics are spread over time-worn wooden tables generously laden with socks, candles, toys, pins, and artisanal, handmade gift items crafted by independent artisans, as well as the soulfully curated array of titles. A charming touch: a shabby-chic, ivory-painted vintage tricycle greets visitors at the head of the table.
Sales are booming (school districts and publishers have already discovered her). She describes her surprise when representation for Jada Pinkett-Smith phoned her recently out of the blue, to ask if Miss Jada might engage Nikki’s clientele at a book signing of her forthcoming memoir. Gulp.
Butler’s Parable of the Sower, along with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, were the two books that first whetted Nikki’s thirst for reading. Many Pasadenans as well as others make two mistaken assumptions about Octavia’s Bookshelf. The first is that it’s a location where only Black people are welcome. The second is that it’s all about sci-fi and fantasy, since this was Butler’s literary genre.
“Not true,” says Nikki. “While sci-fi and fantasy are a popular category, we also have romance, non-fiction, mystery, kid’s books, general fiction, poetry and short stories, YA (Young Adult), cookbooks, and graphic novels. Titles ranging from James McBride’s new book, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, The New Jim Crow, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and more!” In regard to books written by Black and BIPOC authors, she says, “My mission is to choose books that allow people to see more than our trauma, although that’s there for sure. But the scope of these books informs readers about our hopes, dreams, humor, creativity, curiosity, Black excellence and Black joy, too.”
An enduring presence in Nikki’s blossoming success is her grandmother Dolores Jackson, who nourished Nikki’s mind and soul from childhood on, and left this life just before Octavia’s Bookshelf opened its doors earlier this year. “My grandmother and the family left Tennessee for Chicago in the 1930s,” says Nikki, who was born in the Windy City and relocated at age three to Pasadena with her mother. The bond between elder and granddaughter persisted across the miles. Dolores would visit and take the young Nikki, already a voracious reader, across the country every year for Chicago visits, and eventually moved to Pasadena where she had a sister. Dolores stood 4 foot-9 inches in the prime of life, and Nikki says, “She was my little nugget, my savior.”
“She followed me out here!,” laughs Nikki, eyes glowing. “I was a grown woman, married and with a child, and after work I would sometimes go to her house, just to get into her bed. She was very matter-of-fact and she did not ever suffer fools. She’s just open the door and wave me in, saying the bed was waiting. Just to slip in between her sheets, put my head on her pillow. I’d get these sweet little stolen sleeps feeling surrounded by her love.” When Nikki described her vision for opening her own bookstore, she framed her wishes in the context of “…if it’s a success.” Her grandmother Dolores “almost kind of took offense at this. She gave me the look and said, ‘If? What do you mean, if? Of course it will be a success.’” And so it is, just like that.
Octavia’s Bookshelf is more than a bookstore, naturally. Stitch ‘n Bitch evenings invite women to bond over needlecraft (Nikki herself loves to sew and knit). Author readings and workshops fill the calendar. “Books and brews” evenings featuring craft beers from a local brewery were an instant hit. She chuckles describing young white Millennial women who stop by for a trophy selfie, then turn on their heels and skitter away to more familiar territory like Old Town (with its comforting array of Anthropologie, Apple, Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel, Dr. Martens, J.Crew, Lather, Lululemon, Nike, and the usual mall retailers).
Not that it’s all giggles and sprinkles. “The past six months are a blur,” says Nikki, patting a crown of finely coiffed sister locs. “There were times when I’m not sure what week or day it is. The book business operates on razor-thin margins, and this shop is no exception.” She squares her shoulders with a deep sigh, her locs tumbling over the crisp cotton front of her gracefully long, patterned dress. Her bare feet are clasped in black suede Birkenstocks, ideal for standing all day, long days, on an unforgiving concrete floor. “I made some mistakes. But the affirmations are so powerful that I know I’m doing the right thing.”
She recounts an elderly Uncle who visited recently and said, “I’m so proud of you. We’re sharing you with the world now, but remember that you belong to us.” The role of cherished Elder Dolores in guiding her Birkenstocks along the path to opening Octavia’s Bookshelf inspires Nikki to say, “I feel the deepest gratitude to all the women who went before me. I want my life and work to be a way of paying them back for bringing me here, and I want to do my best to honor them by becoming a worthy ancestor myself.” She also urges Elders to interact with young people. “I specifically hire young associates to work with me,” she says. “They are inheriting this world, and they have great ideas.”
And there’s more. When the last sale of the night has been made, and Nikki has locked the front door (she will occasionally open it as latecomers come to tap on the window and ask questions), using a few moments of silence to straighten, tidy, and answer emails, the shelves may become restless. Books may toss themselves to the floor. Nikki says, “I was talking to a favorite customer I call Auntie Gertie, and we were talking a little bit about my grandmother. And Auntie asked me if the books sometimes have a mind if their own, you know, jumping off the shelves. I was amazed! I said, ‘Yes, how did you know?’ And Auntie reassured me that it was just my grandmother, reminding me to still pay attention to her.”
1361 North Hill Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91104