As a feminist, and lover of books, I have always been drawn to iconic feminist bookstores. Bookstores, Antigone Books especially, are all on my bucket list to visit, but since I am a long way from Tucson, I wanted to do a Great Book Stores Feature on Book Club Babble. It’s our way of promoting all of our beloved stores and making sure that our readers know what is happening.

In the beginning, Antigone was the project of three women who pooled 1,500 dollars together to open what was then one of the country’s first feminist bookstores. Their names were Barbara Atwood, Pat Kelly, and Jonnie Cunningham. The store later changed hands and was purchased by Trudy Mills, a former sociology professor, who had been teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. When the university refused to give her maternity leave, she purchased Antigone in 1987.

Two years later, Randall, who was in her mid-20s at the time and had been looking for a job waiting tables, decided to apply at Antigone Books. Randall would later partner up and together, Mills and Randall would be business partners for almost twenty-seven years. After almost three decades, it was time for these two women to find just the right person to preserve the legacy that they had created. And when the pair made the announcement, they had eight people inquire about the business within just one day. What happened next is what this story is all about.

Maribel Garcia: Book Club Babble is proud to interview Morgan Miller, Melissa Negelspach, and Kate Stern. Ladies, welcome to Book Club Babble and thank you for being here today.  Antigone has been a part of the Tucson area community since 1973. With your help, it was purchased in 2018. All three of you have been working in independent bookstores for a collective twenty-four years and Antigone Books, specifically, for a collective fiftee years. You also spent the last year as employees learning to run the business, how do you go from working at such an iconic place to buying it?

Morgan Miller: I’d always wanted to own a bookstore. Kate Stern and I had actually talked about this multiple times – moving somewhere and opening our own bookstore. It was a fantasy we’d discuss, often behind the counter at Antigone. When Kate R. and Trudy announced the sale, it seemed like the chance was presenting itself — before we were really ready, honestly, but I didn’t know whether there would ever be another chance. A successful bookstore was for sale, and we already had an “in” with the women selling it!

We scheduled a meeting with Trudy about a week after we learned about the sale and told her we wanted to buy it. She was pleased and advised us to involve Melissa, who had already been working at the store for many years as an assistant gift buyer. Recruiting Melissa was the easy part. After that came a year and a half of false leads and discouragement.

Melissa Negelspach: Being able to buy the store took a lot of really hard work. We got lots of advice from Ellen Kirton at the Small Business Development Center, where we learned how to put together a business plan and apply for loans. Eventually we also put together a crowdfunding campaign. But we couldn’t have done it without Kate R. and Trudy’s guidance and patience.

Morgan Miller: Patience was key. They were willing to wait for us to raise the money, rather than selling it to someone who already had the money. Not to mention the fact that they allowed us to use the bookstore itself as a platform for our crowdfunding campaign – and even donated to the campaign themselves!

MG: What do you tell people who feel that there is no future for independent bookstores?

Kate Stern: That I think it’s the opposite. I think people are really excited lately about local businesses. People want character.

Melissa: Yeah! They want individuality and community. I think people are starting to realize the consequences of favoring chains and online establishments over independent businesses, which is that their communities will quickly lose these places – and with these places, their community’s character.

Morgan: I would tell them to come by our store on a Saturday afternoon – or any day of the week, really – and see for themselves how independent bookstores are thriving. I’d tell them to join one of our many book clubs or attend the author events Kate Stern coordinates in our store. It’s their choice whether they want to be a part of that, because it’s all happening.

MG: This past April, the store announced that it had met its goal of raising $32,000!! This goal was reached in just four days, this says so much about how supportive the Tucson community is. Can you tell us a little about the people and the movement that has rallied to support Antigone?

Melissa: They are the same people who have been keeping the store open for forty-five years.

Kate Stern: They’re family, too – our actual family members who wanted to support us. And people we didn’t know. People who heard about the store and our cause from across the country and were inspired. And people who love Tucson, too.

Morgan: We knew people loved Antigone, but we were blown away by their show of support for us. I think our community knew intuitively that helping some of the employees buy it was the best way of keeping the Antigone Books they know and love. I’m confident Kate R. and Trudy would have sold it to someone who would have kept it a bookstore, even if that hadn’t been us. They care about this community, after all, and about bookstores. But selling it to anyone else would have meant a completely different bookstore, rather than a continuation of an existing lineage. Antigone has a special history, and I’m glad its story didn’t stop with this sale.

MG: You three have shown a serious commitment to protecting what makes your neighborhood special, worthwhile, and local. This whole process couldn’t have been easy, what were the biggest obstacles in the way?

Morgan: Not having money was the biggest obstacle to buying a business.

Kate Stern: Now that we’ve bought the business, the impending high rises on our avenue threaten what is special, worthwhile, and local.

MG: You ladies seem like the perfect trio to continue the legacy of Antigone Books. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves?

Morgan: I love books. And I’ve always loved working in independent bookstores because they’ve allowed me my individuality and personal dignity while engaging with something I care about. With my background in independent bookstores, and, to some extent, my degrees in English, it made sense that I’d be the book-buyer at the time of the store’s transition. Trudy, who was the store’s former book-buyer, saw that in me and trained me on buying for Antigone.

Melissa: I’ve lived in Tucson for most of my life and have come to love it as my hometown. I love the vibrant culture of Downtown and 4th Avenue. The local people here are insistent upon maintaining an environment with locally owned businesses instead of chains, and I love being a part of that.
I started working at Antigone ten years ago when I was an undergrad at the University of Arizona, and I never really wanted to leave. Eventually I was trained to be an assistant gift buyer, which I really loved because I got to pick out things for people that they could giggle about, enjoy, or be excited about giving to somebody else. I think I have good taste, sure, but I also have acquired a sense of what our Tucson community and customer base finds joy in.

Kate Stern: I’ve always enjoyed arts and culture, and I love being around books and people. As the events coordinator at Antigone Books, I feel like I have the opportunity to bring books and people together and create not only an atmosphere but an experience. Antigone provides a tangible space for people to learn and exchange stories, ideas, and information. To me, this is really valuable in the age of the internet.

MG: One of the big reasons that Antigone Books has stayed in business is because, in addition to books, the shop offers whimsical, inspirational items not related to feminism or politics. Do any of you have a favorite item?

Morgan: The earrings. We sell some beautiful and unique earrings from local designers. I love seeing the new designs come in, and I want them all. But I mostly go home with books and chocolate.

Kate Stern: Retro pens and stationery. I LOVE our stationary. I write letters to my friends back in Colorado with my stationary and retro pens. We also sell an eyeglasses kit that I didn’t even know we had until Melissa pointed it out to me. I fixed my sunglasses! I love that thing. And in general I love all the locally made goods we carry: jewelry, pottery, coasters, cards.

MG: Before the Internet, your bulletin boards were a source of information for local feminist and progressive activities. I read somewhere that when the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program was under fire, Antigone provided information about the issue and the books that were banned from classrooms. This is wonderful. Has the bookstore stayed politically active?

Kate Stern: Yes, we donate to a lot of local non-profits, and all of the decisions we make as a business are rooted in our political beliefs. We also often use our displays to reflect what’s going on in the world and our community. Recently we had a display encouraging people to vote!

Melissa: That’s the great thing about being part of an independent bookstore: if you’re fired up about something — be it the Women’s March or the attempted ban on Mexican-American studies that you mentioned — you have a venue to express your stance.

Morgan: When buying for the store – be it fiction, personal memoir, or political manifesto – I aim for books not just written about, but by, women and people of color. For me, it’s about getting fresh new perspectives and voices into our community. From a business standpoint, this is easy for me to do, because it’s what people are craving and seeking out.  And I think it’s fairly straightforward: maintaining a business that isn’t owned by a giant conglomerate like Amazon is a small – but crucial – political act. Ladies, thank you so much for joining us today!

Morgan Miller, Book-Buyer

Morgan is our book-buyer, which means she selects all of the books we carry at the store. Under Trudy’s training, she has learned how to order from the major publishers and also how to hunt down hard-to-find books not available through major book distributors, including locally-published, Tucson-themed fare. Morgan has worked in independent bookstores in Florida and New Orleans, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and she is fiercely in love with books and reading. She has an uncanny knowledge of literature and a deep passion for connecting people with books they will love.

Melissa Negelspach, Gift-Buyer

Melissa has been working at Antigone for ten years and has been training under the head gift and card buyer, Kate Randall, for the majority of that time. It is Melissa’s job to buy journals, pens, book bags, chocolates, and other non-book merchandise. With her lavender hair, her business sense, and her enthusiasm for the unique, the idiosyncratic, and the lovely, she epitomizes the spirit of Antigone Books.

Kate Stern, Events Coordinator and Head of Community Outreach

Kate has been working at the store for two years and has already refreshed our events program with new energy and enthusiasm. It is Kate who makes Antigone not just a business, but a community. She brings in visiting authors, runs our book clubs, manages our social media, buys books and jewelry on consignment from local authors and artists, and maintains partnerships with the Food Conspiracy Co-op, the Loft Cinema, and other local businesses. As a new owner, Kate is dedicated to finding ever new ways to connect with and highlight Tucson’s unique artists and voices.

About The Author

Maribel Garcia
Founder & Managing Editor

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