Joyce Meskis purchased the Tattered Cover — then a three-year-old bookstore in a tiny spot in Cherry Creek — in 1974. Denver was a very different place then, and after that momentous acquisition, the store grew as Denver did, eventually becoming one of the largest and most revered bookstores in America. During Meskis’s tenure at the helm, the Tattered Cover was also a bastion of the First Amendment, earning her many awards for her activism; simultaneously, she fought on that front as the president of the American Booksellers Association.
In 2015, Meskis arranged to sell the store — now with three main locations, as well as outposts in Union Station and at Denver International Airport — to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan; the ownership transfer will be complete upon Meskis's retirement on July 1, 2017. But until then, she's still working at the Tattered — and she took time out to speak to Westword about the transition of a Colorado institution.
Westword: At what point did you start thinking about the possibility of selling the Tattered Cover?
Joyce Meskis: The continuation of the Tattered Cover in the event of my death or disability has been a consideration beginning with my own purchase of the store in 1974. However, the mechanism for that continuation has changed from time to time, as the evolution of business life required different approaches. To bring this question fast-forward forty years, I was having some health issues and received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. The doctor strongly suggested it was time to get my affairs in order. This wasn’t because she anticipated my imminent death; she didn’t. Rather, it was the unpredictability of the progression of the disease.
This, coupled with the need for, separately, three surgeries for replacement parts (hip, back and knee) made it clear that it was time for a change at the helm of the TC. However, the timing was inopportune. Likely employees were either too close to retirement themselves or not seasoned enough. Bringing someone in from outside of the industry was not only risky, but improbable. With the e-book phenomenon, much of the media had been pronouncing that the book as we know it, paper and ink, is dead. Not to mention Amazon. And then the phone rang.
Why did Len and Kristen seem like a good fit for the Tattered Cover?
On the other end of the line was Len Vlahos calling me on another topic. I had known Len, but not his wife, Kristen, for about twenty years. I considered him a casual friend, and, most importantly, I and practically everyone in the book industry I knew had the utmost professional respect for him. He lived and worked in the New York City environs at the American Booksellers Association, our national trade association, and subsequently, as CEO of the Book Industry Study Group, a national think tank serving all facets of the book industry.
We had a long conversation as friends will who hadn’t seen each other for a while, and then, like the proverbial light bulb clicking on bright, it occurred to me to put forth the question about his possible interest in purchasing the TC. Several months and many, many long phone calls later, now including Kristen, we had a sale agreement. Len and Kristen are passionate about the importance of this industry and independent bookstores. They are energetic to the point of exhaustion: creative, well-intentioned and intelligent. And they love it.
What are the most important things about the operation, atmosphere and culture of the Tattered Cover that you hope Len and Kristen will preserve?
They will certainly put their own mark on it. However, their core value system parallels that of the TC’s very closely: community, service, the rights of the reader as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, encouragement in developing future readers and the support of authors, and providing a safe, comfortable place where our customers can explore ideas of all kinds, those with which they may agree or disagree, so that we may continue to enjoy a thoroughly informed citizenry of critical thinkers.
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What will you be doing once the transition is complete in July?
Reading more books and discussing them with my husband; encouraging my grandchildren and other youngsters in their reading and writing; and perhaps other endeavors yet to be identified.
Looking back, what are you most proud of when it comes to the Tattered Cover?
The many dedicated booksellers, in every aspect of that definition — whether it be receiver, truck driver, buyer, IT guru, accountant, marketer or manager — who have devoted their professional lives to this community of readers we have served for more than forty years.