Pasadena, California, resident Nikki High was only a teenager when she first picked up a copy of “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler.
High doesn’t remember how she first came across the 1979 novel, but the book created a lasting impression. It was the first time she had read a science fiction novel written by someone who looked like her.
“I had read some science fiction before and it struck me as odd that there were no people of color from the books I read prior to that,” High says.
To honor Butler’s legacy, High opened Octavia’s Bookshelf, a bookstore named after the author. The bookstore, which opened on Feb. 18, specifically carries books by minority authors, fulfilling High’s vision to create a space that celebrates the works of people of color.
“There are some fabulous bookstores in Pasadena, but none of them were prioritizing Black, Indigenous and people of color,” High says. “And I just thought how neat would it be to have a space where that is the priority every day.”
In addition to carrying Butler’s work, which will have its own special bookcase, High says she also curates books from international BIPOC authors.
“I just thought that it was time to honor her work. She’s a legend here and beyond. So I just wanted to honor what she meant to me as a teenager,” she says.
Born in Pasadena in 1947, Butler was a science fiction writer and a recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards — both considered to be the most distinguished American science fiction awards. Her work is credited for its discussion on racism, gender and Afrofuturism — a concept that imagines the future through a black lens.
During the pandemic, Butler’s work underwent a renaissance. In 2020, her novel “Parable of the Sower” became a New York Times’ bestseller, making it to the list 27 years after the novel’s original publication. “Parable of the Sower” is the first novel of a planned series. However, Butler died in 2006 before she could complete them.
“She’s really the first African American woman who people acknowledged as a science fiction writer and has gained attention, respect and was awarded for her writing,” said Tarshia Stanley, the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Wagner College. “She’s really the first person to receive those kinds of accolades and that acknowledgement.”
In her hometown of Pasadena, Butler remains a cultural and literary icon. Michelle Banks, an English Professor at Pasadena City College, Butler’s alma mater, said she teaches Butler’s work in her classes while also encouraging her students to find inspiration through Butler.
“We’re always letting our students know that she is an alumna, particularly in the English department,” Banks says.”Most of the teachers, as I said, do speak of her and teach her work. And I think that’s the way to keep the legacy going.”
High says she has conceptualized the idea of opening a bookstore in homage to Butler for some time, however it was her grandmother’s death in 2022 that finally pushed her to quit her full-time job as a customer communications director to open her own bookstore.
Her grandmother, whom High describes as “her person in life,” had encouraged High’s love for politics and reading. She had also been an Octavia Butler fan.
High is not alone in dedicating a tribute to Butler. Last year, the nearby Washington STEAM Multilingual Academy changed its name to Octavia E. Butler Magnet, becoming the first school in the nation to be named after the author. Butler had been an alumna.
“She got her start by entering contests from a very young age,” Natalie Daily, the school librarian, says. “She actually started writing science fiction while she was a student here.”
Daily says she has been in contact with High and is planning future partnerships with Octavia’s Bookshelf to encourage students and children in the area to be interested in reading. Like many in the community, Daily has heard about the bookstore from social media or from word of mouth as excitement began to spread locally.
In December of last year, High’s announcement for the bookstore went viral on Twitter. Her GoFundMe campaign was flooded with messages of support and has raised over $20,000.
“We’re showing up,” Josh Evans, a local poet from Pasadena, tells TODAY.com. “There’s genuine love and excitement here.”
In a video shared on Instagram, a long line of visitors could be seen queuing outside the store during its opening.
Although Pasadena is known for its literary scene, with its coffee shops, the Huntington library and its reading culture, Banks said there hasn’t been a bookstore in Pasadena that focuses specifically on African American literature. Being the first bookstore of its kind in Pasadena, Evans and others in the community hope Octavia’s Bookshelf could be a safe harbor for children of color and a creative space where the community can interact and have fun.
“I think it’s an absolute game changer in every sense of the word. We have many indie bookstores, but we’ve not had one that is owned by a black person, a black woman that’s meant to center around the BIPOC community and really put the community first,” Evans says. He also did a reading during the bookstore’s opening.
High herself has big hopes for the bookstore. Aside from its mission to spotlight authors of color, High wants the store to be a forum for the community to thrive and connect, especially in a place like Pasadena with its multitude of readers and creatives.
“I’m really excited for really beautiful community oriented moments that I know the bookstore and Nikki are going to cultivate,” Arielle Astoria, a local poet, says.
Planning for the future, High has plans to create after school programs and internships for students who are interested in learning to manage a bookstore. She is also interested in partnering with local schools.
“I hope that this becomes a place where we can come together as a community and discuss books, ideas and learn more about one another. In our everyday busy lives we have very few chances to connect with each other and I think this bookstore will serve to be a place for that,” she says.