By Margaret Regan
KINGSOLVER AND ANTIGONE: Back before she was a brand name, Tucson author Barbara Kingsolver used to give readings at the old Antigone Books, a tiny storefront on Fifth Street. And even now that she's a bona fide best-selling author, with works that linger on The New York Times lists, she still reads at Antigone, which has done a little growing of its own, into larger quarters at Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street.
This Friday night at 7 p.m., Kingsolver concludes a national book tour at the local feminist independent bookshop with a reading of her latest novel, The Poisonwood Bible.
The book is brave new territory for Kingsolver, who has sometimes been burdened by a regionalist reputation. In the sprawling new work, Kingsolver departs the familiar Southwest of her earlier tales for Africa, and takes on large themes to match. She sets her novel in the late '50s, at the dangerous moment when Belgium has begun to dismantle its colonial empire, laying bare the devastation wrought on the Congo by years of imperialism. Kingsolver finds a way into this historic disaster through fiction. She's conjured up an American Baptist family that embarks on a Congolese mission just before elected leader Patrice Lumumba is assassinated on orders of the U.S. government.
The mother and her four daughters tell of life in a jungle village in their own distinct voices, Kinsgsolver deftly alternating her narrators by chapter. Burdened by hunger and illness, they get flashes of the political dangers around them only occasionally, like the glimpses they get of crocodiles lurking in the river. The fanatical patriarch of this vulnerable band is one Rev. Price, who understands his family of females as little as he does the Congolese he's impelled to baptize in the croc-infested waters.
"I really loved the book," reports Trudy Mills, co-owner of Antigone with Kate Randall. "It was so involving I had a hard time reading other stuff afterwards. It's great that somebody like Barbara is still so committed politically."
While Kingsolver was metamorphosing into literary star, Antigone Books was coming up in the world too, though not, says Mills with a laugh, at exactly the same rate. Founded in 1973 by Barbara Atwood, Pat Kelly and Johnnie Cunningham, Antigone first pushed the borders of its Fifth Street shop west to Fourth Avenue, expanding into a two-storefront complex on the corner.
"I seem to remember Barbara reading her poetry in that place, with everybody sitting on the floor," says Mills, who became owner in 1987, with Randall signing on in 1991. Kingsolver read her first novel, The Bean Trees, there and over the years, has come back for each of her seven books, appearing at the store perhaps a dozen times.
Three years ago, as the business outgrew its tiny rental space, Antigone moved south, and bought much larger quarters with a parking lot of its own at Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street. Kingsolver's reading this week is part of the store's celebration of its 25th anniversary, a milestone that's not bad in a city that just this year lost two other independents, Coyote's Voice and Whiz Kids Books and Toys. Haunted Bookshop was felled earlier.
"We're doing pretty well after 25 years," Mills says. "When Barnes & Noble and Borders first opened, we could see a decline more clearly."
That's partly because Antigone has adjusted to the new marketplace by adding gifts to its book stocks.
"We're selling the same number of books, but the percentage of sales that are books has declined. When we sell a Beanie Baby, we say that you're subsidizing a book."
It's important for the independents to stay in business to ensure a wide range of books in the marketplace, Mills says. "You need a diversity of people buying books, otherwise you become just a middle ground. With the independents, you get regional variation and idiosyncrasy."
The latest trouble to hit the independents is a Barnes & Noble move to acquire the book distributor Ingram. If the purchase goes ahead, it would give the giant book chain control not only over its own outlets, but over a distribution system that independents rely on.
"The independents get the majority of our books from them. The American Booksellers Association is trying to get the (U.S.) Justice Department to look into it. It's really a worry to me."
Mills says she was pleased that Kingsolver read at independents all over the country on her Poisonwood promo tour. In fact, she kicked off the nationwide tour October 15 at another Tucson independent, The Book Mark.
"I talked to HarperCollins (her publisher) about getting books in for the reading, and I asked, 'What's been going on?' " Mills says. "They read me the names of independent bookstores where Barbara read. In a couple of places she did fund-raisers...You have to get to a certain stature to demand it....
"Barbara, she's great. I met her when she was doing research on Holding the Line, her most political book (a nonfiction account subtitled Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983). She was politically active in her community then, and she still is."
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