It’s only fitting that we met with Nikki High, founder of Octavia’s Bookshelf as Tropical Storm Hilary approached Pasadena. This rare, for our neck of the woods, tropical thunderstorm, punctuated by the brief, heady sway of a 5.1, Ojai-based earthquake, felt like the kind of trippy dysmorphia found in the groundbreaking fantasy fiction of Octavia Butler, for whom High’s still-new Pasadena bookstore is named.
And yes, we do have to use the word unprecedented yet again: the unprecedented weather of this summer literally seems to be pulled from Butler’s very pages.
Born and raised in Pasadena, Butler was a self-described “news junkie” and a literary Cassandra of sorts, predicting global warming and its far-reaching fallout with eerie prescience. Not overlooked in her telling: the earth’s poor, notably Black Americans, will suffer first, more profoundly, and longer that others with greater resources for self-protection.
Today, Butler’s archive is housed at San Marino’s Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. In fact, you can take an informative 2.5-mile self-guided walking tour in the surrounding neighborhood where Butler loved to stroll at tinyurl.com/huntingtonbutler.
The dystopian parallels have been part of High’s frame of reference since she began reading Butler at an early age. “Her Parable of the Sower is prophetic. That book, along with Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, put my feet on this life path of loving books.” She’s quick to point out that Octavia’s Bookshelf may not be what you think.
“People tend to think that this is only a place for Black people, and that we only carry sci-fi and fantasy. But it’s not true! First, the doors are open to all. We do focus on books that were not written by dead white guys, and we do give a lot of space to BIPOC authors, but this is a place for absolutely everybody.”
The shelves give equal time to multiple genres, including kids’ books, romance, mystery, poetry, graphic novels, cookbooks, current titles about politics and social justice, self-help, and YA (young adult) fiction. High 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.”
High opened her doors near the corner of Washington and Hill in February 2023, using her own out-of-pocket savings and support from crowdsourcing to make the magic happen.
There were initial obstacles, however. 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.
Undeterred, she found a small, ideally situated space (she and her husband live down the street) and took the required leap of faith with both feet. In those first days of doing business, a bag of doggie business — yes, fresh poo — was laid on her threshold. Then a second similar deposit was left at the back door, sans the bag. This hostile greeting was followed by a burglary. Nikki recalls, “They didn’t just take the cash: they took the cash register!”
“The rest is a blur,” she laughs, shaking a waterfall of sleek braids that twist into the stately crown atop her head. These days, business is booming. The floor is softened by a plush pastel kilim rug. Colorful hand-woven fabrics are spread over time-worn wooden tables generously laden with socks, candles, toys, fabric book-bags, quirky pins, and artisanal, handmade gift items crafted by independent artisans, as well as the soulfully curated array of titles. A shabby-chic, ivory-painted vintage tricycle greets visitors close to the entrance.
High was born in Chicago and has been a Pasadena resident since the age of three, attending Pasadena High School and Pasadena Community College. She recounts being a toddler, seated on the counter inside the ticket booth at the historic 1925 Washington Theatre movie-house at Washington and Lake (which first went porno, and is now an official landmark), feet dangling, munching on a Nikki-sized tub of warm popcorn while her mother tore tickets.
Even though her early years here were spent in public housing, and despite Pasadena’s canine version of a “Sicilian message,” High is a booster for the Crown City. “I love the old trees and the wide streets. The city was planned so that libraries are within walking distance of many neighborhoods. I have fond childhood memories of the fireworks at the Rose Bowl on the Fourth of July, and I remember the excitement of our football team whipping the pants off John Muir High School! We’re close to downtown Los Angeles, and there are great cultural treats nearby. Pasadena is beautiful.”
Sales are booming (school districts and publishers have already discovered her). A recent beers-and-books night teaming with Arcadia’s Mt. Lowe Brewery was a huge hit, and more such evenings are planned. Stitch-and-Bitch Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 PM draw fellow needle-crafters (High sews and knits). 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.
High’s Tennessee-born grandmother Dolores Jackson was a guiding light through childhood who now may make her otherworldly presence known by playfully tossing books off the shelves after-hours while High tallies up the day’s sales: Jackson left this earth just recently. “She missed my opening by just a couple of months,” says High, perhaps unconsciously patting the tattoo on her right forearm of herself, her grandmother, and her beloved dog. “I think she’s saying that she’s proud of me,” adding, “I dedicate this work to making myself a better living ancestor, in gratitude to all of the Aunties and Uncles and Elders who came before and made this possible.”
Fie on the naysayers, the literal (not literary) party-poopers. Pasadena is Nikki High’s town. Perhaps her sheer force of will kept Hilary at bay as threatening storm clouds passed over Pasadena, sending the downgraded hurricane on to less hallowed ground.
Clad in a flowy gown of colorful, ankle-grazing cotton, bronze skin gleaming, braids swinging, her Birkenstock-ed feet sturdily shod for long days of standing on the unforgiving concrete floor, seven days a week, she is indeed the living manifestation of her ancestors’ wildest dreams coming true.
Open 7 days a week
1361 North Hill Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91104