Denver Tattered Cover Independent Bookseller Could Go to Barnes & Noble | Westword

Barnes & Noble Wins Tattered Cover With $1.8 Million Bid

Is this a You've Got Mail scenario? Or might the big bookseller really be playing a hero's role here?
The Tattered Cover's current flagship store is in the Lowenstein complex.
The Tattered Cover's current flagship store is in the Lowenstein complex. Molly Martin
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Who predicted that the 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail would foreshadow the future of Denver's own Tattered Cover? The movie focused on big-box book retailer Tom Hanks in full aw-shucks mode falling for small bookshop owner Meg Ryan. Despite the fact that it was a feel-good flick, the inevitable still happened: The retail juggernaut rolled right over the longstanding neighborhood mom-and-pop children's book store, and that was that.

This passed for a happy ending in the late ’90s.

And it looks like Denver's own Tattered Cover is heading for that same ending. Or is it?

Tattered has been Denver's leading independent bookseller for decades. The store opened small, just a little shop in Cherry Creek in 1971, and was taken over by visionary Joyce Meskis in 1974, who championed it, nurtured it and grew it to take over the old four-story Neusteters in 1986. It made sense: one Denver brand replacing another.

By then, the store had become something of a Denver fixture. It anchored Cherry Creek North and became the reason shoppers would flock there. It was the place in the city for national literary events. Famous authors, politicos, pop-culture figures and the like would see their signed pictures grace the walls in the stairwells. Out-of-towners would include it on their must-visit places when they were in town.

Meskis closed that flagship in 2006, and opened a new store in the Lowenstein Theater space. By then, Tattered had a massive downtown store, too, on the 16th Street Mall. And then came more changes. In 2015, eying retirement, Meskis sold Tattered to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, staying on for two years to train them in how to run the nationally renowned business.

But nothing could have prepared them for the tough times ahead, as Amazon was hitting its heights and eating deeply from the trough of what had been Tattered's profit margins. Then came the pandemic, and a public relations misstep that many locals mark as the beginning of the end, at least for the kneejerk goodwill that the store had come to enjoy: the store's ill-advised initial response to the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. The owners apologized, but the damage was done.
click to enlarge book highlighting Tattered Cover
The bookstore event got its own book.
Teague Bohlen
With sales slumping, the Tattered Cover was sold again in late 2020, this time to Bended Page, a trio of locals with local investors. But soon the old charm of the 16th Street Mall store was lost in the glass-and-chrome visage of new digs at McGregor Square, and an expansion into Colorado Springs further sapped finances. Hard times continued for what had been arguably the strongest brand in Denver outside of the Broncos. New leaders took over, closed three stores, reorganized...and filed for bankruptcy.

Now Barnes & Noble is set to acquire Tattered Cover for a reported $1.8 million
in an offer that will keep all present locations open, and keep "substantially all" staff employees. Brad Dempsey, the bankruptcy lawyer who's been running Tattered since Bended Page CEO Kwame Spearman left to run for office in spring 2023, says that B&N's proposal was the only one that promised to keep all locations intact and would continue "the spirit of Joyce Meskis."

Eight parties had been interested in bidding for Tattered, but that number had dwindled to only three by the June 10 deadline. At that point, Tattered canceled the June 12 auction; the B&N deal was announced June 17.

The sale isn't a done deal yet; the deadline to file any objections is July 2. Still, the sale to TC Acquisition Co. LLC (an affiliate of Barnes & Noble Inc.) is expected to close by July 31, pending approval by a bankruptcy court.

But what might seem at first to be a corporate takeover that would have Meskis haunting the heck out of those responsible is actually more complex. Barnes & Noble was at one time the primary threat to Tattered Cover and stores like it, as seen in You've Got Mail. But there's always a bigger fish, and Barnes & Noble is now the one struggling to survive against the megalodon that is Amazon and online retail in general. B&N has come out now as a champion of brick-and-mortar retail, and embraced the indie bookstore spirit as part of its survival strategy.

It's important to note that the B&N CEO started as an independent bookseller. James Daunt has made similar moves in the U.K., running several independent bookstore brands and allowing them to continue under their previous indie names. So there's precedent for hoping that letting Tattered Cover be Tattered Cover might well be the operating philosophy here.

Whether that hope will be realized is anyone's guess. What's certain is that this is the end of another chapter in the Tattered Cover saga — one of Denver's favorite stories that no one wants to end.
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