For years, Nikki High dreamed of opening a bookstore — but not just any bookstore. High wanted to cater to people who don’t always get to read about characters who look like them.
Although she had a successful career as a communications director with Trader Joe’s for almost 15 years, High kept thinking about her dream. Her bookstore would be dedicated to Black writers and other authors who are often overlooked in bookstores and libraries. She wanted to call the bookstore Octavia’s Bookshelf, an homage to one of her favorite Black writers, Octavia Butler.
On High’s Inspiration: Octavia Butler
Black writers are often underrepresented in bookstores and libraries — especially Black women writers, and especially when it comes to science fiction. Octavia Butler, a Pasadena native, was one of the first Black women to achieve critical acclaim and commercial success as a science fiction writer, making a name for herself in an industry that is heavily populated by white male writers and readers. Her “Parable of the Sower” was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1993, and two years later, in 1995, Butler published the sequel, “Parable of the Talents,” and earned another Book of the Year honor. She also won a McArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant that year.
High tells Simplemost that she has been passionate about Butler’s books for years, especially her 1979 novel “Kindred.” In “Kindred,” the main character Dana accidentally embarks on a time-traveling journey between the antebellum South and the 20th century, unknowingly connecting her past to her present.
High Achieves Her Dream
Finally, spurred by the heartbreaking passing of her beloved grandmother, High decided to just go for it. As she posted in a tweet that quickly gained over 69,000 likes, High quit her job with Trader Joe’s in October 2022 in order to focus on bringing Octavia’s Bookshelf to life.
I took the leap and quit my job to open my very own bookstore. Octavia’s Bookshelf will open in February and features books written by BIPOC authors in Pasadena, Ca https://t.co/yJeGAZJKNq pic.twitter.com/YZbONk0fXp
— Auntie Nikki is a Virgo💛 🐝 (@gofetchgretch) December 31, 2022
“I was blown away at the level of support I received after my tweet went viral,” she tells Simplemost.
“I’d never had a viral tweet so the attention was a bit overwhelming but in the best way possible. I received so many kind and encouraging messages from people around the world.”
Her vision, Octavia’s Bookshelf, came to life this past weekend.
Last Week’s Opening Was A Big Deal
The Pasadena, California bookstore officially opened its doors on Feb. 18, with over 300 people waiting in line for their chance to support High’s new business. The wild success of opening weekend illustrates that bookworms are ready and eager to support stores that offer BIPOC authors and viewpoints.
Excited customers shared their viewpoints about Octavia’s Bookshelf with the Pasadena Star-News.
“I really like what it’s doing for independent writers, especially women of color,” author Tina Allen told the paper.
Local resident Daphne Niall explained why she was happy to wait in such a long line.
“I read. I’m Black. And it’s my neighborhood,” she told the Star-News.
The opening even received a surprise literary guest.
“I lost it when the queen, Terry McMillan showed up,” High tweeted when the author of “Waiting to Exhale” appeared at her bookstore.
I lost it when the queen, Terry McMillan showed up. https://t.co/aiYcATq1HT
— Auntie Nikki is a Virgo💛 🐝 (@gofetchgretch) February 19, 2023
High’s Perseverance Mirrors That Of Her Hero
Independent bookstores have been experiencing a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to a growing desire to create curated content that is more inclusive and diverse.
Still, leaving an amazing job to open your own bookstore can be daunting. But after three years of working on Octavia’s Bookshelf in her free time and working full-time at Trader Joe’s, High was ready to take the leap.
Like High, Butler herself had to push hard in order to accomplish her dreams. Even though her aunt once fearfully warned her that Black people “can’t be writers,” the author would often get up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. in order to have time to write before she had to go to the factory or restaurant where she worked when she was in her mid-20s.
Decades later, thanks to another book-lover who refused to give up on her dreams, Octavia Butler’s books – and the books of many other Black authors — are waiting to be opened by another eager generation of readers.
Octavia’s Bookshelf is located at 1361 North Hill Ave. in Pasadena, California.
You can support the Octavia’s Bookshelf GoFundMe page here.