The page in storied ownership turning
W hen Joyce Meskis took over the Tattered Cover Book Store in 1974, it was a struggling shop in Denver’s Cherry Creek North neighborhood.
Today, it’s a Denver institution, with four retail stores in the metro area, three licensed locations at Denver International Airport and an influence that extends far beyond its extra-tall shelves.
On Saturday, Meskis officially hands over the independent bookstore she built into a bastion for the written word and First Amendment rights to the next generation, marking the comple- tion of a two-year ownership transition.
Meskis, 75, plans to retire and remain available as a consultant, while the husband-and-wife duo of Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan acquire a controlling interest in the business, with Vlahos as CEO and Gilligan leading a growing outreach to young readers.
On the eve of her retirement, Meskis took a few minutes to chat about what’s in store for her future and the future of bookstores. Editor’s note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q : The ownership transition is almost here. How do you feel about leaving the Tattered Cover in Len and Kristen’s hands?
A: People have been asking me, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” There are so many things that are possible — I’ve given it thought, but I haven’t come to any solid decisions but for one. That is really one of the reasons why I felt it was time to let go of my responsibilities at the Tattered Cover as a company and as, I believe, an important endeavor for the community. It needs energy and vision and commitment. I will be tending to some health issues and while doing that, taking the time to really assess where best I can apply what talents I may have to our community moving forward. (Meskis has said she has Parkinson’s disease.)
Q : So, why them? How did you know they were the right people to pass the Tattered Cover onto?
A: I’ve known Len for over 20 years. He was in New York working for American Booksellers Association, and my work with the ABA gave me an opportunity to see Len in action. His knowledge of the industry is just unparalleled. He’s got the passion for the world of books and the dedication to the customers we serve and the community. While I didn’t know Kristen as well in my work with the ABA, I knew of her and her abilities. I thought it would be a wonderful combination to bring into the life of the Tattered Cover and the community of Denver.
Q : I asked Len and Kristen this question, so let me put it to you: What about the Tattered Cover is “untouchable?” What do you hope isn’t changed?
A: The commitment to customer service and the freedom to read.
Q : The death knell for independent bookstores rang years ago, but here we are today, and they’re thriving. Why do you think bookstores have been so resilient?
A: The experience is hard to match. That’s not to say there aren’t options that we will take as readers, e-books and so forth, but the intrinsic worth of the brickand-mortar store is that it can bring all of the options to the cus- tomer in a way that gives them an extraordinary total experience. In other words, reading a book is not only a cerebral experience. It’s also tactile. And you want to be in a place where you can enjoy all of the artistic endeavors that a book offers to the reader — the feel of it, the smell of it, the content.
Q : What do you see as the future of bookstores?
A: There have always been challenges
in the book industry and certainly even more so the retail side of the book industry. That will likely continue. The business plan, the financial template, if you will, is fragile on the retail side. It’s difficult to achieve a profitable situation. At the same time, the death of the bookstore, the brick-andmortar store, the death of the book has been predicted time and again. For sure, I believe that population of the community, the readers, need to have access to information of all kinds. They need to have a place where they can experience the different qualities of what reading a book means, they need to have the exchange with the bookseller, to talk about books, to seek that information. Consequently, I think the bookstore will certainly continue to be available for as long as I can think of the possibility — which is a long time.
Q : What do you think you’ll miss most about being involved in the store’s day-to-day operations?
A: The people. The readers. Serving the children. It’s so much fun. There was a child who came into the bookshop one day with his mother, and his eye fell on a book on a shelf from some distance, but it was obviously known to him because he was excited to see it — “It’s my favorite book! It’s my mom’s favorite book! It’s my teacher’s favorite book!” It’s a simple thing, but the fact of the matter is there is a lot of pleasure in knowing you played some small part in bringing that book together with that child for a reading experience that was truly exceptional and that child has shared his love of reading and that book with you. You know you’ve made a difference in his life.
Q : What are you most proud of since you purchased the Tattered Cover in 1974?
A: That’s the hard question. Working with the incredible people of the Tattered Cover who have devoted so much of their passion to serving the readers. It’s really a special experience. Tattered Cover has been in business since 1971, and my hope and expectation is that it continues to live as a business, in important ways serving the community of readers.
Mark Lehnertz, manager of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Littleton, helps customer Elton Strittmater on Friday. The four Tattered Cover stores officially change hands Saturday.
Longtime Tattered Cover Book Store owner Joyce Meskis, 75, plans to retire and remain available as a consultant.