Megan Bowser, Krista Anne Nordgren, and Katie DeConto at The Mothership in 2017

The Mothership is permanently closing, a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis.

There’s no way to cushion the blow of losing one of Durham’s most-beloved businesses, which blended a coworking space, a local retail collective, and an empathetic philosophy into a one-of-a-kind operation that was more than the sum of its parts.

The Mothership offered homey, humane coworking space in an increasingly slick, technocratic city; gave a brick-and-mortar home to local artisans otherwise relegated to websites and pop-up markets; enriched the city’s cultural life with everything from concerts to writers’ salons; forged its own model of cooperative woman-led business; and made it work for eight years, which might as well be 20 in Durham-development time.  

But The Mothership’s legacy will go on—abstractly, yes, in the community bonds it forged, but also demonstrably, in the businesses it incubated that (we hope) will outlast it.

The Mothership has been in its mural-painted garage on Geer Street since 2017, but its story began in 2012, in another place, with another name. 

First there was Mercury Studio, the coworking space that Katie DeConto and Megan Bowser opened on North Mangum Street. It was a charmed moment when scrappy art spaces could still get a foothold in the heart of downtown. Mercury became a key site in Durham’s nightlife, swapping art salons with The Carrack, which was then on Parrish Street.   

And there was The Makery, a website that sisters Krista Anne, Sarah Rose, and Brita Nordgren founded to flash-sell handmade local goods. They gained visibility by winning six months in the “smoffice,” a tiny office on Main Street that the city funded to hype its start-up scene. 

Mercury Studio had to move at the end of 2013, when the building it was in changed ownership. It reopened on Geer, where it hosted a pop-up market as a part of the Durham Storefront Project. It included up-and-coming local vendors such as Runaway, and its success inspired DeConto, who retained ownership of the coworking enterprise with Bowser, to start a second business with Krista Anne Nordgren: a retail showroom for local artisans called The Makery at Mercury Studio.

The symbiosis was completed in 2017 when the two businesses merged into The Mothership under the auspices of DeConto, Bowser, and Nordgren, clarifying brand confusion and bolstering financial sustainability.

The Mothership’s days on Geer Street were numbered from the start. They had an initial two-year lease followed by rolling six-month renewals at the discretion of landlord Alex Washburn, who had plans to redevelop the property. When we reported on the merger in 2017, they thought they were a few months away from moving out. 

But two years stretched to six before the time came: The Mothership would have to move in early 2021. Though rents in Durham were less manageable than ever, they had found two sympathetic landlords before, and they had earned the support of potential financial partners in the community. They were confident they could weather the transition.

“We were finding that standard commercial rent was completely out of our price range, but finding owners who believed in what we were doing is the way we were going to be able to continue,” Nordgren says. “Fortunately, we had those connections.”

Then COVID-19 came, and the gap between The Mothership’s old home and its potential new one grew too wide to ferry a community across. Unsure if they would even be able to reopen in the old space while trying to find a new one, they decided to officially close at the end of June.

“We didn’t want to close; we still really believe in the work we’ve done,” DeConto says. “But not having continuous business was a huge wrench in the works, and making big financial commitments isn’t at the top of anybody’s list now.”

“Especially as a community-membership model, to dissolve the community and then rebuild it would be a difficult task,” Nordgren adds. “And in terms of taking out loans or anything, we don’t really have any handholds at this point.”

In addition to dozens of vendors and coworking members, The Mothership had a staff of 12 that worked shifts in exchange for space. Though the founders say they kept the business in the black, they never got to the point of doing it full-time. 

There are other coworking spaces in Durham, from American Underground and Provident1898 to—gulp—WeWork, though none of them are quite like The Mothership. And there’s nothing comparable to the retail showroom, which had more than 30 vendors when it closed.

“We wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people willing to take a chance on us, and so being willing to take a chance on other people is the joy of what we do,” DeConto says. “When Mercury opened, there’s no reason anyone should have given us a lease. The store closing is going to have a huge impact on people who make ends meet selling their items in the store. Some people treated their booths as mini-storefronts and did really well. Sara Spissu really built a following.”

Spissu’s time as a vendor and staffer at The Mothership was instrumental in opening her own sprawling shop, Gibson Girl Vintage, on Chapel Hill Street in 2019. 

Just a couple of years before, she’d been a Durham newcomer who sold vintage clothing and other items via Etsy, eBay, and local markets. She’d never been a part of a retail collective or a permanent space until she joined The Makery.  

“It was a shot in the dark,” Spissu says. “I thought they were going to have extremely rigorous criteria, but that was not the case at all. I called, and Krista Anne was just as friendly as could be. Even through the phone, I could tell I loved this woman.”

Spissu says that having her own store was a longtime dream that risked remaining just that—a dream. But while working as many Mothership shifts as she could, she discovered that she both enjoyed and excelled at being a shopkeeper. 

“It was a very encouraging experience, actually seeing people buying your things,” she says. “And when I was writing up my business plans, I could say, ‘I sold this amount out of this closet-size space. So imagine if I had a 1,700-square-foot space.’” 

Spissu’s story illustrates one of the core principles of The Mothership—empowerment by example, or what DeConto calls “mentorship-lite,” with a willingness to dare and dream. 

“Having people who’ve negotiated commercial leases and run spaces to bounce things off of, saying, ‘you can do it, you’ll do great!’ is a big confidence builder,” she says.

“Sara was super motivated; she came in with that dream and was able to gain more of the confidence and skills in the shop,” Nordgren adds. 

Gibson Girl is far from alone among businesses and artistic enterprises that were nurtured, at least in part, in The Mothership. Others include The Zen Succulent and the Runaway brick-and-mortar store. Marcella Camara’s pop-up gallery, Young, Gifted, & Broke, and The Floor’s dance parties both had formative early events there. 

The Mothership leaves Durham’s handmade-and-vintage marketplace better than it found it. DeConto and Nordgren remember when it was basically just them and Rock & Shop, but now there are craft markets almost every weekend. 

Still, those scattered markets don’t replace having a trusted centralized space that keeps regular hours, which DeConto says is less work and more profitable for vendors, especially beginners.  

“The market for handmade has exploded times a million since we got started,” Nordgren says. “It’s been beautiful to see people really value this work, what these people bring to Durham. But there’s something about having a home where people’s items are accessible to be touched. We’d get a lot of people who’d seen things at markets, thought it over, and then come because they knew it was at The Mothership.”

The Mothership is hosting a closing celebration June 4–7. You’ll be able to submit memories to an online archive or visit the space during limited, social-distancing-enforced hours as the founders contemplate what’s next, for themselves, and for the brand, which has the potential to transcend physical space. 

“We were all in our early-to-mid-20s when this started,” DeConto says. “Now that I don’t have to consider the survival of The Mothership with every professional choice I make, what does that mean? It was very unique work and I think it will be hard to find something that feels similar.”

“I do not know adult life without this,” Nordgren says. “The coolest part has been the ethics we just sort of made up as we went along, in terms of how we wanted to run the business and treat each other and our community. That has radically changed how I operate as a person and set a really high bar for how I need to exist in the world. It’s going to be hard to find a follow-up unless we make it ourselves again.”

The Mothership’s contributions to Durham are lasting and irreplaceable, and while the space is closing, it will take more than COVID-19 to block the connections it forged or the energies it set in motion.  

“It’s not just a space and an opportunity, but a community they emboldened,” Spissu says. “Every person who helped me in the year leading up to opening my shop, I met at The Mothership. So I’m sad, but those three women are so fiercely intelligent and professional and poised that I’m more curious about what they’re going to do next.”

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at

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