A new generation of book-loving ladies have their pens poised to take over the story of Antigone Books.
Last week, we learned that Melissa Negelspach, Morgan Miller and Kate Stern — all 20-something employees at Antigone Books — had obtained a loan that was almost enough to buy the bookstore. They just needed Tucsonans to chip in $32,000.
Current owners Kate Randall and Trudy Mills announced their plans to sell the store about 18 months ago — but only to the right people.
"I absolutely, honestly feel that they are the perfect match for the store..." Randall said. "All three are smart and hardworking and they understand the business."
Mills first purchased the store in 1987, and she and Randall have been running Antigone Books for about 30 years. They will continue to own the building at 411 N. Fourth Ave. Randall plans to stay on as an employee, while Mills will shift into more of an "on-call" position. They hope that Antigone's new owners can take over in May.
It was three women who opened Antigone in 1973, naming the bookstore after the Greek mythological character who stood her ground against male authority figures. It was a feminist bookstore that has since widened its selection to include a variety of books and quirky odds and ends.
Negelspach, 28, will take over the gift buying. Miller, 29, will do book buying. And Stern, 27, will handle events and community outreach. Plus all the other hats they'll have to wear as local business owners. The shop currently has 10 employees, plus Randall and Mills.
Changes are planned, but they're relatively minor — along the lines of computerizing inventory, changing window displays, organizing more community events and rethinking the store layout.
On Wednesday morning, we crowded around a small coffee table near the back of the store with Antigone's future owners to pry into their bookselling lives, how it feels to own a Tucson icon and the best books they've read recently. Obviously, we weren't going to pass up a chance to ask for book recommendations.
Here is our (edited) conversation with Melissa Negelspach, Morgan Miller and Kate Stern. This is a fun one.
Tell me your individual journeys to owning Antigone.
Morgan Miller: I had been working at independent bookstores since I was 18 ... When I moved to Tucson, I came for grad school, and when I needed a job, I was like, "Well I want to find a bookstore. Obviously." So I came to Antigone (the summer of 2015) ... I just felt at home and comfortable. I get kind of prickly when I'm not working at a bookstore. I get jealous of booksellers, like I want to be there. I want to be doing that. ... Kate started working after I did, but Melissa was already here and was kind of intimidating. She'd been here for years.
Kate Stern: [Melissa] had her Wonder Woman coffee mug and was like, "I'm going across the street to get coffee."
Morgan: She was very sweet, but also knew how the store worked so she was kind of intimidating. But Kate started working at the store the year after me, and we hit it off really quickly. And one night we were hanging out and were like, "Oh, we love bookstores. One day we should own a bookstore. That's all we want to do." When (Mills and Randall) made the announcement, I just looked at her and was like, "This is it, Kate."
Kate: I have always loved books. My sister turned me on to them when we were young because she read and wrote a lot ... and then I worked at the Tattered Cover in Denver in college ... Everything about it I loved. ... I'm happy just working at bookstores the rest of my life, honestly. I got my degree in art in Denver, and I think that's why I love books so much. They're an art form, and reading is experiencing art just like looking at a painting. And then I decided to move to Tucson for an art project. ... I knew I wanted to work at Antigone Books because I had researched the local bookstores ... and Antigone was the one that popped out at me. And it was purple on the outside, so I was like, "Ooh, I want to work at that store."
It took a while to get the job, because they weren't hiring at first, but once I got the job, it was March of 2016 ... One of the first things Melissa said was, "I think you're going to like it here." And I didn't know how much I would really like it here. ... (Morgan) and I talked about running a little book store —
Morgan: — But we were like, "It can't be in Tucson, because we can't compete with Antigone."
Kate: When Morgan had the idea (to buy Antigone), we were like, "It's Melissa's store. We've got to get her in on it." So we got her in on it, and then it just took a really long time, because we were three booksellers trying to buy something. But we never gave up. And it only made us love this place even more.
Melissa Negelspach: "I grew up in Tucson, but on the east side. I never ever came downtown because my parents wouldn't drive us this far. But when I was 18, I was going to the university and at the time working at Cold Stone at Park Place, and my friend was like, "That's not a grownup job. You need a grownup job. Let's go apply to things." So we applied here and Starbucks. ... I got the job and worked here all through my undergrad and after college, and it just kind of became home to me.
A little bit after my eighth year (Randall and Mills) sat everyone down and were like, "We're selling the store." And I was so upset. ... I didn't believe anyone else could take up the task of running a place like they did, so the next day I came up to the counter and (Miller and Stern) had this energy and I was like, "What's going on with you?"
So we had a meeting at The B Line — which is kind of like our unofficial meeting place. We are there every Monday. But then it all just came together, and we had so many stumbling blocks but in the end overcame them, and here we are. It's crazy. I've been with the store almost 10 years.
How do you guys see Antigone's role in the community? And what are your hopes for Fourth Avenue?
Melissa: A lot of people have a lot of history with the place. We had this couch in the children's area that was an elephant, and it got broken one day, and people kept saying, "What happened to the elephant? I used to sit there when I was a kid and read books." So there's just this collective history that we have. We can keep it going.
Kate: I really hope that (Fourth Avenue) stays local and some of my favorite places stay around. I think there's a lot of really cool unique-to-Tucson businesses, and that's what makes it so special.
Morgan: I agree with Melissa. People have a history here. It's one thing to say there's a new local business that's unique. I just don't want (Fourth Avenue) to get generic.
Do you feel like Tucson supports indie bookstores?
Melissa: I feel like we have a really supportive community, and I feel like we always have. (Editor's note: We asked Randall the same thing. She agrees: Tucson ❤️ indie bookstores). I think we're better off than the average independent bookstore, because I think Tucson is more cognizant of the fact that you can't just take an indie bookstore for granted. You have to support it.
Morgan: I want people to know what it means to us when they buy their books here. I mean, we lose our minds sometimes. Like, "You're getting that book!"
Kate: It's so special.
Morgan: We notice every book, partly because we still do inventory by hand. We notice every single book that comes in and out of the store. And it makes us giddy. ... It's like we wrote them ourselves.
Kate (elbowing Morgan): Like, "did you see what's missing from the Milk and Honey display? Oooh! We have to restock it again!"
Melissa: One of the best feelings as a bookseller is to bring people to a book you love and have them take it home and experience it themselves.
How has bookstore life impacted what you read?
Morgan: I think working at a new bookstore versus a used bookstore, I'm definitely reading what's about to come out or what just came out or what's on our new release table.
Kate: Everyone has different taste. I mean, we're definitely all kind of ritualistic about our reading. ... We definitely influence each other with that. We theme our whole lives around the book we're reading ... Morgan and I have this one-on-one book club where its just kind of random, but we theme the whole book club.
Morgan: We went to (Westin) La Paloma. We read a book about rich ladies in L.A. ... There was a golf course and it was like a resort, so we dressed up like L.A. ladies and ... when we got there we had cocktails and walked around the golf course ... that was for "Woman No. 17" by Edan Lepucki.
Kate: We always know what each other's reading. It's like inappropriate not to ... We actually started a board back there for what you are reading and you can update it.
Morgan: Melissa is way more down to earth than us.
Melissa: Well, I was recently reading "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and had to have chocolate, because when a Dementor gets you, you have to have chocolate. We all do that a little bit, I think."
What got you into reading when you were a kid?
Melissa: I really don't remember a time not reading, to be honest. My first favorite book I remember was about an alligator named Arthur who really loved spaghetti. And I really loved spaghetti, so I really related to Arthur.
Kate: I think it was mostly my sister, because she was really into reading and writing, and she would write 100-page stories in fourth grade and make me listen to all of her drafts. But it also just seemed cool that she could write, because I couldn't yet. And she also read cool books. She was always reading "The Baby-Sitters Club" or chapter books — things that I couldn't read yet, so it just seemed really important. ... And then as we got older, she actually started showing me cool books. ... I think the first thing that blew my mind was Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and everything that Toni Morrison wrote.
Morgan: I don't know. (Reading) is the most important thing in my life. I get choked up thinking about it. I think sometimes I take it for granted. You always have a book with you. Always. It feels wrong not to have a book on my person at all times.
What was your dream job when you were a kid?
Morgan: I thought I would be a writer. It's funny because I think if you had told me when I was sitting with my books I was going to own a bookstore, I would have been like, "Duh. Of course I'll own a bookstore. What else would I do?"
Melissa: I wanted to be a writer when I was little, and then I wanted to be a nurse, and then I wanted to be a doctor briefly. But in retrospect, it's so hilarious that I never thought about doing anything with books as my job, because I've always loved books. But here we are.
Kate: My first dream was to be the president. But then various girly things like hairdresser and fashion designer. Those kinds of things. And then I was like, art. I love art. But then I was like, "Oh I don't want to do that to my art. I would rather just do it and not worry about making a job out of it." ... And I found a job at a bookstore and was like, "This is it!"
What are you passionate about (besides books)?
Morgan: Sports. Watching basketball. ... Reading. Writing. I got my master's in creative writing, so I like to write stories ... Eating.
Kate: I really love art. That's the reason for everything. Art is everything. I'm also really close with my family and my friends and have pen pals that matter a lot to me. I like keeping my house clean.
Melissa: I like to bake.
Kate: She's good at it.
Melissa: Thank you. And I like plants. I get really into my house plants. And I like to sew. Really badly.
Kate: We have a "Sex and the City" night, too. Every Tuesday. ... It's kept us normal through all of this. When things get really stressful, we're like, "It's OK. We can just all get together and watch "Sex and the City" on Tuesday, and everything will be OK." Next up will be "Mad Men."
Is there a book character you really relate to?
Morgan: Maybe Matilda, a obsessive reader. That's all I did as a kid, was sit on my pink beanbag and read. ... But I had a much happier childhood than Matilda because she had very evil parents ... but she was just very herself and loved books ... I also related to Anne of Green Gables because she had this crazy imagination and was always putting on acts, and I was very performative and always coming up with imaginary things to do.
Melissa: I personally feel like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter ... I'm not as gullible as she is, I'd like to think, because she's very credulous. She likes to believe in everything. But she has this attitude of wanting to be herself no matter what people think. ... And I really aspire for that.
Kate: A lot of times I feel like I can relate to every character. I can relate to Grace Jones talking about her disco life in the '70s. I read her memoir, and that's so not me, but I can totally be like, "Oh. I see it."
What's the last good book you read?
Morgan: "Free Food for Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee.
Kate: "Feel Free" by Zadie Smith.
Melissa: "Use of Weapons" by Iain Banks.
Visit Antigone Books Saturday, April 28 for some Independent Bookstore Day festivities and to meet the new owners.