The Book Pages: Octavia’s Bookshelf founder ‘floored’ by public’s response

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve imagined owning a bookstore.

Nikki High, however, is living the dream. The former customer communications director of Trader Joe’s is preparing to open her own bookstore in Pasadena, Octavia’s Bookshelf next month.

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Along with a GoFundMe page, she shared her goal in a tweet that went viral over the holidays, which said in part: “I took the leap and quit my job to open my very own bookstore.” The message to the attention of many (including me, my colleagues at the Pasadena Star-News and several readers who sent it my way).

I spoke with High this week and asked if she’d imagined she’d get that kind of reaction.

“I had no idea it would resonate with so many people,” she says. “I was floored, actually.”

“I’ve always been a reader,” says High. “You have that feeling when you go into a bookstore and you’re like, Man, I’d love to do this one day. So, yes, I’ve always felt like that.”

She named the store, which will focus on the work of BIPOC authors, in honor of the city’s late sci-fi legend, Octavia E. Butler, who had lived not far from the store’s location and whose works have only become more popular (and adapted into a FX on Hulu series) since her death in 2006. Her papers are held at the Huntington Library in San Marino and the Mars landing pad was named after her.

“She’s one of the most famous writers to come out of Pasadena,” says High, a Pasadena resident who says Butler’s books had a profound influence on her. “It was the first time I saw a writer write about Black people in the future, which I felt was something that was missing.”

High, who has an infectious enthusiasm for books (and dogs!), says she hopes the bookstore will inspire visitors the way that Butler’s work inspired her.

“We all have an Octavia in our lives, somebody that opened our eyes to seek more books and more information and read more stories,” she says.

She said she started thinking seriously about opening a store a few years ago. Despite having a job she loved at Trader Joe’s, she began talking it over with her husband, reading books on bookstore management, visiting shops and talking to booksellers.

Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

And when her beloved grandmother died, High says she felt something shift within her.

“She passed and I just started thinking, You know what, I’m gonna do it; I want to honor my dreams,” says High, who also credits a trip to Swaziland and South Africa in August where she met women craft masters who were getting paid to do what they love, as inspiration.

“That really solidified it for me,” she says. “I gave my notice, which was difficult because I really loved my job. I loved all the people I worked with,” she says, adding that she even rode the Trader Joe’s Rose Parade float in 2022.

High says she’s currently putting together titles for the store. “I’m building a canon, which will include classics for me: Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler,” she says. “Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin.”

She cites Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom” and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, the Serial Killer” as recent favorites, and she aims to include children’s books, cozy mysteries, true crime and “a bit of everything.”

“My hope is that this can be something that continues to resonate with the community and that people from all backgrounds and age ranges will come out and just be curious,” says High. “I’m looking forward to doing a lot of author events, which will more than likely be an off-site situation because the shop is pretty small.

“But I’m gonna make it work.”

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