Search

The Book Pages: Octavia’s Bookshelf owner Nikki High on an incredible first week

If you’ve ever thought a bookstore would be the best place to wait out a cold, stormy Southern California day, well, you’re right.

Yesterday, I caught up with Pasadena’s most celebrated new bookstore owner, Nikki High of Octavia’s Bookshelf, and she described the shop that day.

“I had a great day. It was cozy, the rain was coming down on the skylight, and there was just a lot of conversation, mostly around Octavia Butler,” says High. “It just felt so fulfilling. There were a couple of kids in there and some couples and friends and solo shoppers and people just conversing with each other and looking at the books.

“I sat back and looked around and thought, This is it. This is what I was hoping to do,” says High, sounding both deeply moved and extremely tired.

The BIPOC-focused bookstore, which is just in its first week of business, is already a phenomenon, one that has touched people as a place to celebrate representation, community and, of course, books.

The store opened on Saturday, Feb. 18, and there was a line – a very long line – to get into a bookstore. And nobody seemed to mind.

I was there and it was incredible: hundreds came for the event, which featured poet Joshua Evans starting things off with a poem that brought High to tears. It was a beautiful moment, one of many, and set the mood of the day.

With crowds of patrons lined up and down the street, owner Nikki High welcomes them to Octavia’s Bookshelf on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, at 1361 N. Hill Ave. in Pasadena. (Photo by John McCoy, Contributing Photographer)

“You probably saw me crying; I cried throughout the day and they were just tears of joy and relief that we got our doors open. And it was, I would say, probably one of the best days of my life.” (It was a good day for the rest of us, too.)

So yes, the line was long – I waited an hour or so to get inside and shop and some waited nearly two hours – but it was full of happy, smiling people. (You can read my colleague Georgia Valdes’ report with photos by John McCoy, including the lovely one above, for more on the day.)

This was special: The people I waited with were all strangers to each other, but we didn’t stay glued to our phones ignoring each other – a feat, considering we were a bunch of bookish introverts. Up and down the line, people chatted, exchanged book recommendations and held each other’s places, generally making the whole thing a total pleasure.

“Readers are an incredible community, but the way that they showed up to support this store,” High says, laughing in amazement, “selling close to 3,000 books in two days. It was quite successful.”

The store is a compact oasis of excellent books and authors: Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, R.F. Kuang, Lauret Savoy and many more.

I got myself a copy of Butler’s novel “Dawn,” which had been recommended by one of my linemates, along with Justina Ireland’s “Dread Nation,” which injects a zombie apocalypse into the American Civil War (that should be interesting to read in between episodes of “The Last of Us”). Finally, I picked up Aaron Philip Clark’s “Blue Like Me,” a 2022 crime novel set in LA that sounded terrific.

Along with books, I got cards and a tote bag – because I like tote bags almost as much as bookstore T-shirts. I left happy and looking forward to my next visit.

On Thursday night, High sounded pretty happy, too.

“I am just so lucky to be a part of that. I met so many people, and I just felt such community and love and support,” says High. “You know, you mentioned folks standing in line for hours – some people up to two hours – and they were just all in a really good mood.

“I could not have imagined a better outcome. It’s beyond my wildest dream.”

For more info, go to octaviasbookshelf.com. And High is scheduled to be among the local booksellers, authors and food trucks at the inaugural Be The Change Book Festival at Central Library 222 East Harvard Street, Glendale, on Saturday, February 25th, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (It’ll be indoors!)

Remembering Tom Verlaine’s life among the books 

Tom Verlaine of Television performs during the All Tomorrows Parties festival held at UCLA on March 15, 2002. (Photo by George Campos / The Press-Enterprise)

Speaking of bookstores, Seattle’s Phinney Books alerted me to a piece of writing I wanted to share with you all, because I just loved it.

Following the death of Television singer and guitarist Tom Verlaine, Colin Groundwater wrote a lovely remembrance of the influential musician for Literary Hub. (Television’s “Marquee Moon” is a beautiful album I’ve listened to many, many times.)

But the piece wasn’t about Verlaine’s musical life; it was about his yearslong ritual of haunting the $1 book carts that line the front of New York City’s epic bookstore The Strand. While the store has faced difficulties in recent years, it is a wonder, a place I always try to visit when in New York.

Verlaine, who took his stage name from the French poet, was one of the shoppers known as “cart sharks,” the determined, intense devotees who focused almost exclusively on finding treasures in the cheap books outside. The article describes a kind of ecosystem of seekers of which Verlaine was one.

As someone who worked in a record store and encountered the delightful range of serious music shoppers, I appreciated Groundwater’s description of The Strand’s clientele.

And, honestly, there’s something kind of moving about Verlaine, a rock icon, if not a rock star, spending his time pawing through books when not on tour or recording.

While the cliche of rock stardom is parking your Rolls in the swimming pool, that never seemed very appealing to me.

But looking for good books?  If that’s not making it, I don’t know what is.

OK, some final thoughts before we get to the Q&A. Did you see “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”?

I support your judgment either way.

But – minor spoiler ahead – my favorite part of the movie involved an author reading at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore.

Although, I found that scene harder to buy than shrinking heroes and quantum realms. As a lifelong comic book reader, I can buy into most every crazy plot point except for this: If an actual superhero gave a reading at a local bookstore, it would be a lot better attended than the one in the movie.

Finally, I wanted to share this photo of my dog, just as I found her one afternoon, hovering over author Rebecca Makkai’s new book, “I Have Some Questions for You.” This, you can take as a recommendation; the book is terrific.

No, I didn’t pose this. I came upon my dog eyeing (and yes, licking) Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful “I Have Some Questions for You.” (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

Sign up for The Book Pages
Miss last week’s newsletter? Find past editions here
Dive into all of our books coverage

Share the Post:

Related Posts