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Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore Is Focused On Succession, Not Just Survival

September 9, 2015

Over the last four decades, Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, Colo., has become an institution — known for its vast selection, its knowledgeable sales staff, and the comfy chairs that fill the many nooks and crannies among the bookshelves.

“You can sit and read. And the people are friendly …” says regular customer Robert Norris. “I just like the atmosphere myself.”

That atmosphere is a personal reflection of Joyce Meskis, the store’s long-time owner. Back in the mid-1970s, Meskis designed a bookstore where she herself would want to shop: “Yes, I was there to buy a book …” Meskis says. “But I also wanted to be comfortable. I wanted service sometimes. Sometimes I just wanted to be by myself. It’s nothing more than treating the customer as you’d want to be treated.”

Now, after more than 40 years at the helm, Meskis is preparing to retire, and she’s selling the store to new owners, both publishing industry veterans.

Tattered Cover customers have been fiercely loyal through past transitions. Years ago, when the store moved across the street, hundreds of customers helped lug boxes of books. Their only reward: a t-shirt, a sandwich and a strong sense of community.

Incoming owners Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan both spent years working for the American Booksellers Association — a retail trade group — and naturally they dreamed of owning their own store someday. They imagined buying the bookstore equivalent of a minor league baseball team, but say taking over the Tattered Cover is like running the New York Yankees.

“It is humbling. It is overwhelming. It is a big responsibility,” says Vlahos. “Joyce is leaving shoes that we have no intent to try and fill because they can’t be filled. We will walk in our own shoes, but try and continue the legacy.”

The new owners will have some time to get acclimated to their mile-high literary perch. They’re serving a kind of extended apprenticeship under Meskis. The sale won’t be finalized for two more years.

“It came about because we couldn’t convince Joyce to stay for 20 years,” Vlahos jokes.

This might seem like an inauspicious time to invest in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, given the competition from Amazon and e-books. But the Tattered Cover has weathered earlier challenges from the big chain bookstores. And Gilligan notes membership in the Booksellers Association has actually grown in each of the last six years.

“The death of the indie bookstores is truly greatly exaggerated,” she says. “In fact, you’re seeing a lot of succession.”

Other beloved bookstores around the country have also found new buyers, including Inkwood Books in Tampa, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, and Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.

Meskis says the Tattered Cover has steadily evolved over the years, without changing its fundamental philosophy. When the first computers were introduced on the sales floor decades ago, she insisted on painting them brown, to blend in with the bookshelves. The store has also branched out to multiple locations, including a move to Denver’s lower downtown in the 1990s, that marked a very early step in that now-bustling neighborhood’s revitalization.

“On a Saturday afternoon, you could see tumbleweeds kind of blow down the street,” recalls John Hickenlooper, who owned a neighboring brew pub at the time. “It was so, so little traffic.”

Hickenlooper, who’s now the governor of Colorado, owned a downtown building with Meskis for a time. He was so impressed with her bookstore’s customer service, he asked to sit in on the employee orientation.

“Your training just to man a cash register is two weeks,” Hickenlooper says. “And part of that, the first day, for every employee, Joyce always does herself.”

I got a taste of that training when I held an after-school job as a shipping clerk at the bookstore in the 1980s. Meskis warned me the work would not be glamorous, and there wouldn’t be much time for reading. There was a radio in the stock room, though, where I first heard a program called All Things Considered. (We listened carefully any time a book was mentioned, because listeners would unfailingly come looking for it the following day.)

Vlahos and Gilligan are now undergoing a similar orientation. Meskis says she’s confident they’ll find new ways to connect readers with the books they love.

“There’s no question the bookseller plays an important role in putting books and ideas and people together,” Meskis says. “And every person who works here, whether it’s in the shipping department, whether it’s out on the sales floor, whether it’s crunching numbers in the back room, they all play an important role in that exchange of ideas.”

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