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    Octavia’s Bookshelf owner Nikki High on the Pasadena bookstore’s incredible first year
    • January 13, 2024

    What if you had a dream – and it came true?

    Nikki High, owner of Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena, might be one of the best examples of this you could ever imagine. After posting a tweet on Dec. 31, 2022, that read in part, “I took the leap and quit my job to open my very own bookstore,” her message went viral, resonating with tens of thousands of people who saw it as 2023 began.

    She opened her store on Feb. 18, 2023, to what can only be described as a phenomenal success: a beautiful opening ceremony, lines stretching up the street and book buyers who came on Day One – and haven’t stopped.

    “It doesn’t feel like quite a year – sometimes it feels like it’s been two days, and other times it feels like 10 years. But I’m still processing all of it,” says High. “I’ve just been on the best ride for the last 12 months.”

    Stopping by the store last month to catch up, I asked her if she was surprised by everything that’s happened.

    “I think the biggest surprise, which it shouldn’t be, is just how much support I’ve gotten from everyone, particularly the Pasadena and Altadena community – the San Gabriel Valley, in general. I mean, Pasadena is a really special place,” she says. “And so on Day One when I open, there’s this giant line, and I thought, ‘Well, I just, you know, hit the jackpot.’”

    She’s already expanded, taking over the larger space next door last September.

    “That was weird – wild – but meant to be, right?” she says, explaining that she’d been welcome to use the larger space as needed, and then learned it was available, but didn’t think she’d be able to swing it.

    But the property management company came back with a plan. She recalls them saying, “‘We’ve been doing a lot of talking in the office. We are so happy that you’re here and you’ve quickly become an anchor to the development and so we want to make this work.’”

    “And so they came up with this plan that made good sense to me. So I said, ‘Yes.’ I’ve been saying a lot of yeses this year,” High says with a laugh. “It feels really good.”

    Nikki High, seen here on Dec. 20, 2023, reflects on the success of Octavia’s Bookshelf as she approaches the Pasadena bookstore’s one-year anniversary on Feb. 18, 2024. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

    The store has not only connected with the local community, she says, but others looking to open bookstores in their own neighborhoods.

    “I’ve had some folks reach out to ask me how they can replicate the success here,” she says. “I’ve been eager to share with people … because we need more bookstores everywhere. So I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned.”

    She says she received help herself from booksellers at The Salt Eaters Bookshop, Malik Books and Vroman’s. But she singles out Jazzi McGilbert of Reparations Club for being a friend and resource over the past year.

    “Her support, her ongoing support, has been so incredible,” says High. “I am just so grateful for her, specifically.”

    Throughout our conversation, customers shop and talk – including a former coworker of High’s from Trader Joe’s. I pass the time browsing – I picked up a copy of “Miracle at St. Anna” by James McBride – and playing with a foster puppy that High has in the store that day.

    Looking around the room, especially the Octavia E. Butler shelves, I ask about the books she’s sold the most over the past year. Maybe “Kindred” or “Parable of the Sower”?

    Along with works by Butler, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and others, High mentions a children’s book, “Kash’s Hats” by Mariah McCloud.

    “Since we’ve opened, it’s been my No. 1 selling children’s book,” she says. “She lives in Pasadena. It’s been really cool.”

    High is also aiming to help young readers, especially those who can’t always afford books. She’s working with local schoolkids and has an idea – a dream, let’s say – for this new year.

    “In 2024, I would love to be able to raise funds so that I can do a book fair at one of the local elementary schools or junior high schools – and all the books will just be free. Every student can get two books. So I’m working on it,” she says.

    “That’s my biggest goal.”

    For more information, go to the website.

    A shopper, seen here on Dec. 20, 2023, inside Pasadena’s Octavia’s Bookshelf. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

    Readers write in about reading

    We get mail. And paper airplanes. (Getty Images)

    I got more feedback than usual after last week’s newsletter about counting the number of books you read. Here are some of the responses:

    Regarding the number of books one reads, I learned a long time ago it’s not about the number but rather the enjoyment those books give you. Also, don’t waste time on a novel that’s “not doing it for you.” The rest of the world might love it, but if you don’t, just stop. There are way too many books out there for you to enjoy. – C.L. Altman, Michigan

    I really had a laugh at the first paragraph of the intro to your newsletter. Yes, we have a lot in common. My home office has five book-loaded bookshelves and there are stacks of books on the floor, making it almost impossible to walk into the office. I visit my local library and their used bookstore almost every week. And I watch out for announcements in the OC Register and my email for Bookish, which I really enjoy. I read a variety of things: mysteries (Michael Connelly, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Dean Koontz) and non-fiction including biographies and autobiographies.  – Jean Kulla

    Thanks for this gentle reminder to read what you can, when you can, how you can. – Jhoanna Belfer, Bel Canto Books

    Funny thing, given your most recent column: I actually do keep a running list/count of every book I read start to finish (for the last 20 years anyway). If I didn’t count, I fear, I wouldn’t read as much. and, according to me, everything counts – a graphic novel just as much as “War & Peace” (which, actually, I haven’t read yet). – A reader, Glendale

    My column about music books apparently got shared around and I’ve been hearing from folks from around the country about that, too, which is great.

    Finally, you may or may not have read the story I wrote about author Duane Swierczynski that ran earlier this week (though not here in the Book Pages); if not, I hope you will. I’ve gotten lovely responses from readers and am hoping to spread the word a bit here about Team Evie, the foundation that Swierczynski and his wife Meredith established in honor of their late daughter Evelyn, which provides books to kids at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

    You can also read more about Swiercyznski, whose book “California Bear” is out this week, in the Book Pages Q&A below.

    Duane Swierczynski on a powerful piece of writing advice

    Author Duane Swierczynski discusses his 2024 novel, “California Bear,” at Clearman’s North Woods Inn on Dec. 5, 2023. It’s his first solo novel since 2016’s “Revolver” and most recent since his 2023 bestselling collaboration with James Patterson “Lion & Lamb.” (Photo by Erik Pedersen /Cover courtesy of Mulholland Books)

    Duane Swierczynski is the author of novels, nonfiction, scripts, audio originals and the recent bestselling collaboration with James Patterson, “Lion & Lamb.” His just-published novel is “California Bear,” and he spoke with Erik Pedersen about it and followed up by taking the Book Pages Q&A.

    Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

    I have a long list of forever titles I’ll recommend, especially if a friend is new to a genre—and I have some insight into that friend’s personality. But usually, when I’m evangelizing for a book, it’s one I’ve recently finished and want to tell the world about. In recent years, this has included “Bullet Train” by Kotaro Isaka (the movie was a blast, but the novel is even better), Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula” (which eluded me for years, until it finally clicked), Newton Thornburg’s “To Die in California” (a powerful and heartbreaking revenge novel), Michael Shea’s “Polyphemus” (especially for “The Autopsy,” one of the freakiest horror stories I’ve ever read), and the next series of books I’m about to mention in reply to your next question…

    Q. What are you reading now?

    “The Murderbot Diaries” by Martha Wells, which is the fast-paced misanthropic sci-fi action epic I didn’t know I needed. The voice is pitch perfect, the humor is dark, and the action is spectacular. Even better, the first five installments are novellas, starting with “All Systems Red.” You will plow through ‘em like popcorn. The tastiest, saltiest popcorn.

    Q. How do you decide what to read next?

    I don’t know how common this is, but I’ll go through a run of books within the same subgenre (Midcentury crime, Victorian horror, 1980s mainstream lit, and so on.), then abruptly decide: Okay, enough of that for now! Currently I’m in a science-fiction mood… specifically cyberpunk and robot stuff. Why robots? I have no idea. I have no choice but to comply with my brain’s demands.

    Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?

    My father had a battered, coverless paperback copy of “The Interrupted Journey,” about the (alleged) UFO abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. I read that thing through the gaps in my fingers, and I went to bed every night terrified I’d be next.

    Q. Is there a book you’re nervous to read?

    I might be nervous to re-read “The Interrupted Journey,” to tell you the truth.

    Q. Can you recall a book that felt like it was written with you in mind?

    In the spring of 1998 I walked into a comic book shop near NYU and walked out with a small stack of Robert Sheckley paperbacks—they were on a front shelf selling for something like $5 a pop. I took them home to my Brooklyn apartment and started reading them with both a sense of awe and familiarity. Awe, because Sheckley’s imagination knew no bounds, and familiarity, because finally, here was a writer whose brain sort of worked like mine. I’m not equating myself with Sheckley—the man was a master. But I felt a sense of kinship, and his example gave me the confidence to attempt my first novel, “Secret Dead Men.”

    Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?

    I will forever be a fan of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard covers from the late ’80s through early ’90s. So stylish, so slender, so satisfying, even before you open the book. To me, they’re the apex of trade paperback design.

    Q. Do you listen to audiobooks? If so, are there any titles or narrators you’d recommend?

    I do, especially when I’m faced with a long drive or a flight. This year I listened to Steve Powell’s “Love Me Fierce in Danger” (his James Ellroy biography) as I drove to and from Las Vegas. And while driving cross country last year, I passed some time with David J. Skal’s “Dark Carnival,” his biography of “Dracula” director Tod Browning. For some reason, I’ll usually opt for biography or historical nonfiction when I’m going to be on the road for a while. Maybe that’s me looking for a traveling companion.

    Q. Is there a genre or type of book you read the most –and what would you like to read more of?

    I try to read widely, but don’t stress out too much about catching up with literary classics I have may missed. If they cross my path, and I respond to them, cool! But what I’m forever chasing is the high of discovering a unique voice. Word of mouth is huge for me. If a trusted friend says I should check out a certain book, it’s a dead certainty that I will.

    Q. Do you have a favorite book or books?

    You could ask me this question every day for the rest of my life, and the answers would vary wildly. (Hell, they’d probably vary by the hour.) The best thing I could do is invite you to my writing office, gesture at my shelves, and (honestly) tell you: These. These are my favorite books. I keep what I love, and pass along the others to used bookstores or little libraries. I realize this sounds like I’m ducking the question (which I am, because it’s a huge question), but on the tops of my bookcases are rows of boxed sets from the Library of America: Vonnegut, Bradbury, American Noir, Hammett, Women Crime Writers, Elmore Leonard, American Science Fiction, Shirley Jackson, Philip K. Dick… all of these are huge important to me, which is why they’re (literally) at the top of my home library.

    Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?

    I’ll probably dive into the phone book-sized “The Big Book of Cyberpunk,” edited by Jared Shurin, over the holiday break. I asked Santa for a copy of Sam Wasson’s new one, “The Path to Paradise,” which is all about Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope Films. I’ve been listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast interview with Wasson, and I’m literally shaking with anticipation.

    Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

    Art Bourgeau, owner of the former Whodunit bookshop in Center City Philadelphia, took me under his wing when I was a twentysomething loner looking for something good to read. Not only did he recommend an amazing run of hardboiled paperbacks, but he gave me some incredible advice that really didn’t take root until decades later. Art told me that readers look for glimpses of the author in their books. I dismissed that, because twentysomething Me was desperate to hide behind fictional characters. But a quarter century later, I believe that Art was right, and I’m trying to embrace that idea, rather than run from it.

    Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?

    The voice. If a voice is unique and grabs me, I’m your fan for life. Kurt Vonnegut grabbed me with the opening of “Breakfast of Champions,” for example. It reads like a foreword, but then you realize wait… this is the actual novel. Nineteen-year-old me had no idea you were allowed to do that.

    Q. What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?

    Whenever I travel, I try to read books set in the city I’m visiting. Six years ago I had a business trip to London, which coincided with the release of Nick Triplow’s biography of Ted Lewis, “Getting Carter.” I spent my free time in Soho pubs reading the biography, along with “Jack’s Return Home.”

    Q. What’s something about your book that no one knows?

    Actually, Erik, something you said made me realize something about my own novel that I didn’t know. “California Bear” is very much focused on food, from dive bars to diners to donuts. It wasn’t something I was consciously focusing on while writing it, but wow, it’s certainly there.

    Q. If you could ask your readers something, what would it be?

    “What is wrong with you?” But the truth is, it’s probably the same thing that’s wrong with me.

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    • • •

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    • • •

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    • • •

    Bookish (SCNG)

    Next on ‘Bookish’

    The next installment is Jan. 19 at 5 p.m., as hosts Sandra Tsing Loh and Samantha Dunn offer a preview of UC Riverside’s annual Writer’s Week in February. Guests include Los Angeles Review of Books editor Tom Lutz and poet Rigoberto González. Sign up for free now.

    • • •

    Read any books that you want to tell people about? Email [email protected] with “ERIK’S BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and I may include your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

    And if you enjoy this free newsletter, please consider sharing it with someone who likes books or getting a digital subscription to support local coverage.

    Thanks, as always, for reading.

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