‘These are my stomping grounds’: the first Black-owned bookstore opens in Octavia Butler’s home town

Books are strewn everywhere and are awaiting their turn to be shuffled into their assigned nooks in tall black shelves. It’s just seven days until the grand opening of Nikki High’s southern California bookstore and despite the frenzy, the independent bookseller is outwardly calm and collected in the chaos, managing self-care and getting a full nine hours of sleep a night.

She’s been plotting this day for months.

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Her store, Octavia’s Bookshelf and Pasadena’s first and only Black-owned bookstore, was inspired by the speculative-fiction writer Octavia E Butler, who spent her life and career in the city. High wanted her bookstore to reflect the values of Butler’s writings and to specialize in selling the work of writers of color.

High first encountered Butler’s work as a young person in high school reading Kindred, which was originally published in 1979. Now that she’s 48, High’s love of Butler’s work has manifested into a physical store that represents the writer’s legacy.

Inside Octavia’s Bookshelf is a carefully curated set of books and non-book items that High has sourced from mainly independent Bipoc-owned businesses – “not on Amazon”, she emphatically said. Beyond books, Octavia’s Bookshelf has everything from quirky book-nerd socks to prayer candles dedicated to iconic Black women literary figures such as Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde.

“I had been thinking about [this bookstore] for about 10 years, but not in a way where I was ready to leave my job and do it,” said High, who managed communications for 15 years at Trader Joe’s.

But what pushed High to lean into her dream was the May 2022 death of her grandmother, who had always championed her granddaughter’s pursuits. High took the leap a few months later in October of that year and began the process of starting her own business.

She searched for examples of what her storefront could be. In August, she visited a collective of female artisans in Swaziland, Africa, and witnessed the community care embedded in their daily lives. And she was impressed by the business models carved out by existing Black women-owned bookstores like the Lit Bar in the Bronx.

“I was feeling all the good energy. ‘Yes, I could do this.’ So when I came home, I just started to look at different retail spaces,” she said.

High had been relying on her own savings and was looking to take out a loan until everything changed overnight. On New Year’s Eve 2022, she wrote a tweet about her efforts to start Octavia’s Bookshelf and it instantly went viral online. With over 10,000 retweets and 5.1m views, it garnered a flood of support and donations toward her new venture that raised more than $22,000 on GoFundMe.

High said that without the donations it would have been harder to raise the necessary capital to open the bookstore. But now that her crowdfunded shop has opened, it’s allowed her to enjoy a level of freedom she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“I wanted [my bookstore] to be completely independent so that I would not have to compromise my values,” she said.

Octavia’s Bookshelf is just one of many recent iterations of Butler’s powerful legacy that is casting renewed interest in the author’s work. In 2020, Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower landed on the New York Times bestseller list, and adaptations such as the limited series Kindred on Hulu have brought her work to TV screens.

I wanted my bookstore to be completely independent so that I would not have to compromise my values

Nikki High

Butler was born and raised in Pasadena, and attended local schools including Pasadena City College, where she began her career as a writer. She meticulously kept a record of her surroundings and noted her observations of the natural world and the growing crisis of climate change. These writings informed her bestselling series Earthseed, which is set in the apocalyptic, drought-stricken year of 2027 in Los Angeles.

Today, her journals and writings are kept in an archive at the nearby Huntington library in San Marino, where members of the public can view them. Just last fall her middle school alma mater, the Washington Steam multilingual academy, was renamed the Octavia E Butler magnet school, making it the first school in the nation to honor her legacy by name. About 90% of its students are people of color.

Dr Ayana AH Jamieson, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Cal Poly Pomona, is the founder of the Octavia E Butler Legacy Network, an organization that preserves the work of and promotes scholarship on the writer. She says that movies like Black Panther which spotlight Black speculative fiction and Afrofuturism prove that audiences are hungry for narratives that center and empower Black characters.

“This work isn’t happening in a vacuum,” she said of High’s new bookstore. There are other Black women-owned bookstores throughout Los Angeles including the Salt Eaters in Inglewood and Reparations Club in Crenshaw. “Many Black women and non-binary folks [are] leading the way and making space for themselves through community, and I think that’s part of what Butler’s characters do in many ways.”

Butler’s work is prescient in the way it describes the impact of climate change and dystopian apocalypses. Jamieson said Butler’s work is brilliant because of the writer’s extensive research that is also informed by her lived experiences.

I think that’s super meaningful that we don’t have to read all white male writers

Dr Ayana AH Jamieson

Jamieson knows that these bookstores and Octavia’s writings offer readers from diverse backgrounds a chance to see themselves reflected in the books they read.

“The majority of Butler’s work was published in my lifetime,” she said. “And I think that’s super meaningful that we don’t have to read all white male writers.”

On the opening day of Octavia’s Bookshelf in February, a line stretched nearly a block long as Butler fans and eager patrons waited to enter the snug store a dozen at a time. With a queue rivaling that of any popular amusement park, many parents were attempting to corral their children.

Tanica Russell and Eve Richards carpooled together from Long Beach to support the store’s opening. Russell had brought her two young children with her; Richards, who was pregnant, sat on a chair offered by staff.

“[I want to] expose them to books where they see themselves. When it comes to school and the books they see at school, they probably won’t,” said Russell of her children. “But I think [it’s important for them to] see the community supporting Black women and Black bookstore owners.”

Awoenam Mauna-Woanya and his partner, both engineers, only recently moved to Pasadena and discovered Octavia’s Bookshelf through social media. Mauna-Woanya also runs his own sustainable urban infrastructure newsletter, Fostering Our Earth, which was partially inspired by Butler’s work.

For him, Butler’s grounding ethics have informed his own research and policy advocacy. In Parable of the Sower, he learned that “the only constant thing is change”. “[There’s] this whole idea of emergence and understanding our place in society and oneness with each other and what we need to push for a better world,” he said.

As recent transplants looking to build roots in the city, Mauna-Woanya and his partner say the bookstore has allowed them to feel connected to the Black community in Pasadena so that they can feel at home.

High grew up in Pasadena’s housing projects, but she didn’t understand the inequities and racial segregation of her childhood neighborhood until later in life. She’s witnessed Pasadena shift and grow over the decades. For High, the bookstore is a site of nostalgia and renewal for a home town where she lived until settling in adjacent Altadena. Seeing her Black-owned business thrive in Pasadena is bittersweet, she said, because gentrification has pushed out many Black residents that have lived there for generations. Even her own son moved to the Inland Empire because of the high cost of living in Los Angeles county.

“These are my stomping grounds. I know every street in Pasadena and Altadena,” said High. “It’s not a big city.”

High’s intimate connection to the neighborhood and desire to preserve Black spaces give her work a heightened sense of mission and urgency. High sees herself in that lineage of Black artists and creators.

There are already plans to utilize Octavia’s Bookshelf as a site for art workshops and educational programs to service the local community. Josh Evans, another homegrown Pasadena resident and a second-grade teacher, performed spoken word at the weekend’s opening event to pay homage to Black culture during Black History Month.

“I love Octavia, the fact that she came from Pasadena and we don’t have a lot of Pasadena Black women literary celebrities,” Evans said. He’s excited at the chance to pay it forward as a volunteer leading classes in voice acting and poetry. “I’m unofficially head of Octavia’s Bookshelf’s programming.”

It was the local community of Pasadena that rallied to help High cross the finish line. She described an outpouring of love over the past month as family, friends and strangers alike came by her store to drop off used books and food and even offered to lend a hand with setting up furniture and painting the walls.

“I’ve had people contact me and say, ‘Hey, I saw your GoFundMe. I’m not in a position to donate but I’m really good with a hammer and nails and I live around the corner. Can I come by and help?’” said High. “That means so much to me, and it’s been an exercise for me because I’m not accustomed to asking for help.”

That weekend, upward of 200 people flocked to Octavia’s Bookshelf’s opening event where High had prepared a decadent charcuterie table to feed all her guests. Emotions were running high as she looked around the room in disbelief at the dream she had that had now been brought to life.

“Thank you for coming,” she said tearfully, dabbing at her face with a tissue. Many attendees were wearing T-shirts quoting the work of famous Black female writers and thinkers including Audre Lorde. To High, this gathering was the epitome of those values of centering the Black community. “We’re doing the Lorde’s work,” she said.