New chapter for racially diverse bookstores: Steady growth, wider reach

by Laura Randall, CSM Contributor from Pasadena, California

151180In a line that snaked out of the store and down the street, Milan Zoe (left) and Barry Queen wait to buy books the first day of business at Octavia's Bookshelf in Pasadena, California, last month. Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

March 20, 2023

When Nikki High quit her corporate communications job last year to open a bookstore in Octavia E. Butler’s Southern California hometown, it made perfect sense to name it after the prize-winning science fiction writer.

Ms. High was a kid growing up in Pasadena when Ms. Butler was a young adult. She likes to imagine they crossed paths in grocery stores or the large central library they both considered a haven. As a teen, Ms. High read “Kindred,” Ms. Butler’s 1979 classic novel about time travel and slavery. And she turned to it again and again as an adult. She recommended “Parable of the Sower” to book-loving friends long before it hit bestseller lists and was singled out for its prescient themes of climate change and racial and political tensions.

Octavia’s Bookshelf opened Feb. 18 in a former yoga studio not far from Ms. Butler’s childhood homes and in sight of the bus line the famously car-averse writer used to take around the city.

Ms. High has a five-year lease and a plan that has been percolating for years: create a safe space where all readers can access a wide selection of books by writers of color, from icons like Ms. Butler and James Baldwin to up-and-coming authors of children’s books, memoirs, and short stories. 

Writers of color deserve exposure year-round, Ms. High says, not only during February, when Black History Month displays turn up at larger bookstores, only to disappear the rest of the year: “Books aren’t just written for a specific type of person or group. These are important stories that we should all be reading.”

151180JENNA SCHOENEFELD/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITORNikki High left her corporate career to open Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena, California. Her dream is to create a safe space where all readers can access a wide selection of books by writers of color.

Octavia’s Bookshelf opens at a buoyant but uncertain time for independent bookstores. Many are thriving, thanks to a pandemic-driven surge in reading and support for local businesses. 

But, says Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “we’re starting to see that slow down. The industry is definitely hunkering down with the understanding that we may be about to shift gears.”

During the Thanksgiving weekend between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, 42% of the ABA’s independent bookstore members reported increased sales over the same period in 2021; 34% reported sales down, and 24% saw flat sales.

Kristen McLean, a book industry analyst for the NPD Group, reported in a January webinar that print book sales in 2022 were the second-highest in 20 years, even though they were down 6% from 2021. 

Ms. High also must contend with two local challenges: sharing a ZIP code with Vroman’s, one of California’s largest and oldest independent bookstores, and last year’s closing of Eso Won Books, a venerable Black-owned bookstore in South Los Angeles that had hosted Ms. Butler, the late Toni Morrison, former President Barack Obama, and many other notable authors of color since opening in the late 1980s. (Eso Won now operates a modest online operation.)  

While “there’s a deep level of sadness” about Eso Won’s closure, says Ms. High, a patron of the store since she got her driver’s license at 16, she is grateful to the owners for paving the way for stores like hers. “The blueprint was already set. I was able to see them flourish and be a mainstay in the community.”

Diversity trending in store ownership

New bookstores owned by Indigenous people and people of color continue to open at a steady pace: Of 203 independent bookstores opened in 2022, 40 were owned by people of color. Of the ABA’s 2,023 members, 15% identify as such, Ms. Hill says. 

151180JENNA SCHOENEFELD/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITORA local Pasadena author is featured on opening day at Octavia’s Bookshelf.

“We are seeing more prioritizing around identity and community that is primarily focused on historically marginalized communities,” says Ms. Hill. “And we are definitely seeing a trend in membership: new stores by Black women, and they are trending young.”

Last year, Ymani Wince opened The Noir Bookshop on hip Cherokee Street in St. Louis as a community hub offering new and used books by people of color, gifts, and pop-up events. In 2021, twin sisters LaKecia and Le’Ecia Farmer and their cousin Deatria Williams launched Parable, a bookstore and community space in Tacoma, Washington. Named in honor of Ms. Butler’s “Earthseed” series, it specializes in books by, for, and about LGBTQ communities and those of color. In Los Angeles, two shops owned by women of color have opened since 2019: Reparations Club, selling gifts and books, and The Salt Eaters, featuring books by and about Black women and LGBTQ and nonbinary people. 

“Geography separates us, but I want and will continue to support their stores,” Ms. High says. “We’re only better together.”

Like many of her peers, Ms. High turned to crowdfunding for support. She has raised more than $22,000 on GoFundMe so far, with many of the donations coming in $25 or $50 increments from locals elated to support a Black-owned business in their neighborhood. Other donors were inspired by Ms. Butler and pride in sharing a hometown with her. Poet Gerda Govine donated $250, and recalls hearing Ms. Butler on local public radio shows and visiting her home, where books were as neatly arranged as “curtains.”

Ms. High, for her part, cites a 2021 visit to southern Africa as an inspiration for her store. While visiting Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), she spent time with weavers and batik printers, whose aim was to empower women through sustainable and fairly compensated work. “I was so impressed with the way they supported one another and how different yet similar their lives were. I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to create that,’” she says.

Soon after her return, she gave notice to her longtime employer and set about making her bookstore dream a reality. She sought advice from other booksellers, built a financial model, and met with local authors and the librarian at the middle school Ms. Butler attended – renamed for the author in 2022. She plans to enlist young readers to write reviews of their favorite books to be featured like “staff picks” around the store.

“I want to connect with local schools and bookstores and really think about how readers can support each other and have a space for community,” she says.

151180JENNA SCHOENEFELD/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITORThe February opening event of Octavia’s Bookshelf was so busy that the store had to close for a day to restock.

Opening day buzz

When Octavia’s Bookshelf officially opened last month, Ms. High saw the community she envisioned take shape in a way that exceeded her expectations. Students, local poets, curious neighbors, and entire book clubs waited patiently in a line that snaked down the block for most of the day – buying so much that the store had to close to restock a day later. Best-selling author Terri McMillan stopped by to lend her support. 

In the store, Jean Hubbard Boone, an actress whose gray curls unfurled beneath a yellow knit hat, rested on a chair with her purchases: a copy of Ms. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and “In Bibi’s Kitchen,” by Hawa Hassan, with recipes and stories from grandmothers in eight African countries. She learned about the store through Facebook and wanted to support it on opening day, despite the hourlong drive from her home in Encino: “I am an avid reader, and it warms my heart to see a bookstore that is Black owned and woman owned.” 

Ms. Butler died in 2006, but her work enjoys growing popularity – NASA named the landing site of its Perseverance rover after her; a TV series based on “Kindred” debuted on Hulu in December; and webinars and podcasts like “Octavia Tried to Tell Us” and “Octavia’s Parables” analyze her works.  

She’d probably be pleased by all the attention, notes Lynell George, the author of “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky,” a book about Ms. Butler’s life. Less certain, she adds, would be the late writer’s reaction to the transformation of the once-sleepy Pasadena corner where the bookstore is located: A bustling intersection with double-espresso, Pilates, and açaí offerings, it’s a far distant scene than when Ms. Butler walked the neighborhood and accompanied her mother to work as a housemaid.

“She wasn’t very sentimental about places, but she did pay attention to who lived around whom and interacted with one another,” Ms. George says. 

In a moment when the neighborhood is shifting, Ms. Butler would likely see Octavia’s Bookshelf “as a strong sign,” she adds. “It’s a flag in the ground. We’re still here – our stories matter.”

Nikki High’s book picks

Nikki High opened her dream bookstore – Octavia’s Bookshelf – in Pasadena, California, in February. Asked for recommendations, she listed five:

Heavy: An American Memoir

By Kiese Laymon 

“It’s an autobiography you just have to read. You feel for him. I can’t believe this man is still standing.”

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves

By Glory Edim

“A collection of short stories curated to showcase the different experiences and voices of Black women.”


By Yaa Gyasi 

“She’s maybe in her 30s, and I can’t believe she is so young – the way she is able to collect words and make them so beautiful.”

Bloodchild and Other Stories

By Octavia E. Butler

“‘Speech Sounds,’ a scary, amazing short story [in this collection] set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The main character is losing her language but mentions specific landmarks and streets as she tries to get back to Pasadena.”

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents

By Isabel Wilkerson

“Incredibly researched, I loved the compassion and respect she has for her subjects. It’s a must-read for a deeper understanding of America’s caste system.”

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Last edited 3/27/2023 9:03:48 PM

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