Nikki High ’05 Opens First Pasadena Bookstore to Highlight Minority Authors

by Abigail Reed '20

In 2022, Nikki High ’05 took a leap toward the unimaginable: she left her successful corporate job to pursue her life-long dream of opening a bookstore. Not just any bookstore, but Octavia’s Bookshelf—a place of gathering and community that prioritizes Black, Indigenous, and people of color authors.

Doors open for the first time on Saturday, February 18, at 1361 North Hill Ave in Pasadena. The grand opening of Octavia’s Bookshelf is the culmination of High’s dedicated hard-work, willingness to take risks, and, of course, avid love for reading.

It all started when High read her first book, at the young age of three.

“I had a tumultuous childhood, and reading offered me the ability to daydream,” High said. “I could make friends with characters I had never met and visit worlds beyond my wildest imagination.”

This love for reading continued throughout her life, as her mom and grandmother made sure to provide her with a constant supply of literature. When she became a mother herself, earlier than her friends, books became her solace in times of loneliness.

Throughout the years, High completed a handful of college courses through community college, but deeply desired to complete her learning through a university program. As a Pasadena resident, she quickly discovered Azusa Pacific University was the place for her.

“APU had the best flexibility for full-time working adults like me,” High said. “They recognized someone going back to college in their thirties, with a family, would need support and connection.”

With a small cohort of around 15 people, High began her studies in APU’s Organizational Leadership Program. She developed meaningful relationships with faculty-mentors who supported her through graduation.

“It was incredible to learn skills that I carried with me into work the next day,” High said. “Attending APU as an adult learner was truly a wonderful experience for me.”

After graduating in 2005, High began working as the customer communications director in the corporate Trader Joe’s office. Her learning at APU served her well as she engaged with customers across the nation, coordinated with regional directors, and provided input on new products—leading with compassion and integrity for nearly 15 years.

However, even during her professional career, books remained her passion: she could often be found perusing local independent bookstores for a new poetry collection or the latest sci-fi release.

“I started posing the idea of opening a bookstore to my family and friends, and received nothing but support, especially from my grandmother,” High said. “When she unexpectedly passed in 2020, it pushed me to reprioritize my life around my dreams.”

High started living boldly by taking a trip to Swaziland—a small country she had developed a love for through reading. There, she connected with a community of women artisans. As she watched them skillfully craft their wares, High knew she wanted to also make a difference in her community by creating something beautiful.

When she arrived back home, she quickly set her plan into action, leaving behind the corporate world to open Octavia’s Bookshelf.

“The name is a nod to the Pasadena legend, author Octavia Estelle Butler,” High said. “I often felt discouraged as a teen reading science fiction novels—full of magical, advanced societies set far in the future—because they lacked people that looked like me. Butler changed that for the world, and for me, by featuring people of color in her novels.”

High wanted to make that difference for others, and prioritize and highlight novels by underrepresented authors. Her shelves feature writers from all countries and walks of life, whether poet Lucille Clifton, playwright August Wilson, or science fiction author Tomi Adeyemi, to name a few.

“Unfortunately, these writers often face difficulties when applying to get published or sold by big brand companies,” High said. “Their rich, vast, quality stories deserve to be read by everybody, of all backgrounds, and I can’t wait to share them with my community.”

Abigail Reed '20 is a freelance writer living in Manzanita, Oregon. [email protected]