This is a familiar scene to anyone who’s lived in Colorado for any amount of time. The Tattered Cover — with locations on Colfax, in LoDo (both on the 16th Street Mall and in Union Station) and at Aspen Grove — is more than just one of the most respected independent bookstores in the country. It’s a Denver institution, the city’s collective living room. On this brisk Saturday, it may also be the quietest public space in town. All that can be heard is the gentle, collective hush of whispers and turned pages. Len Vlahos — who, along with his wife, Kristen Gilligan, is the Tattered Cover’s new owner, taking over from longtime owner Joyce Meskis — sits in the midst of it all, at one of the tables near the front entrance. At 51, he has gray hair, but his face is boyish.
“I remember being so enamored of the downtown store the first time I went there,” Vlahos says, recalling his first visit to the Tattered Cover in the late ’90s, when he lived in Connecticut and worked for the American Booksellers Association. “It just had such a cool, funky vibe. I really fell in love with it. Joyce is masterful at store design. I don’t know if there’s anybody in the country better at store design than her. I’ve always been a fan.”
His voice cuts through the silence. Vlahos may be a bookseller — as well as an author, whose startling new young-adult novel, Life in a Fishbowl, is due this week from Bloomsbury and follows two critically acclaimed books for teens, The Scar Boys and Scar Girl — but he’s a little louder than your stereotypical bookworm. Then again, that’s not unusual for someone who thirty years ago was not an avid reader, but a punk rocker.
Vlahos was bitten by the music bug early on. “We had a piano in the house,” he remembers. “Even when I was five or six, I would sit and write songs on that. When I was in first or second grade, a friend came over and we wrote a song called ‘Dy-No-Mite,’ because of Good Times.”
He formed his first band in fifth grade. “I played trumpet,” Vlahos recalls. “But then I got braces in the sixth grade, so I couldn’t play trumpet anymore.” He got a guitar when he was thirteen; an acoustic guitar with nylon strings, it wasn’t the most punk of instruments, but it set Vlahos on the right path. “It was one of the few life-changing moments I can point to,” he says. “As soon as I got that guitar, I started to really play. My folks gave me guitar lessons. Some kids, when you give them music lessons, you have to kind of beg them to practice. But all I wanted to do, ever, was come home and play that guitar.”
He saved up money from a newspaper-delivery job, went to a music store in the Bronx, and spent every penny he had on his first electric guitar. His next-door neighbor had a drum set. The kid down the street had a bass. The three started a basement band playing covers of songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bad Company — “what’s now called classic rock,” Vlahos says, “but just the rock of the day back then. One of the first songs I learned to play was ‘Day Tripper.’ I was in love with that riff. That’s what I cut my teeth on, musically.” They named their act the Colonial Heights Club Band — shades of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — and started doing shows, if you can call them that. “We never played out,” Vlahos says, “but we would play in my parents’ garage and open the garage door and just annoy the neighbors.”
Vlahos’s music made a quantum leap when his sister, who was six years older, took him to a concert at Irving Plaza, a renowned Manhattan venue. “The band we were going to see was called Sector 27,” he recalls. “Sector 27 was the remnants of this band called the Tom Robinson Band. Tom Robinson was this gay-rights singer, so here I am, this green thirteen-year-old kid from the suburbs, going into this club where it’s almost like a gay-rights event. It was the last time I think I experienced culture shock.”
After that, Vlahos dove headfirst into New York’s buzzing music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, frequenting such legendary venues as CBGB, the Peppermint Lounge and the Bitter End. Although drawn deeper into punk, he didn’t turn his nose up at stadium shows by mainstream groups like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Armed with both punk and classic rock — a formula that would bear fruit decades later in his books — he set out to start a new band with some friends from high school, half of whom couldn’t play an instrument.
“The day the bass player came to my house, I said, ‘Okay, let’s tune up. Here’s an A.’ And he said, ‘What’s that?’,” Vlahos remembers. “But we just played. We were bad. We were so unbelievably bad. We called ourselves Woofing Cookies. The name comes from an old movie from the ’80s called Times Square. It has this song that goes, ‘You make me woof my cookies,’ and at fifteen we thought that was the funniest thing in the world.”
With an appropriately puke-centric name, the fledgling punkers started playing anywhere that would have them. Which wasn’t many places. “We got so much flak from family and friends about the name of the band, we changed it,” he says. “We became American Standard. It was our nod to Woofing Cookies, since American Standard was the name of a plumbing fixture.” Pressured by their parents to focus on college now that graduation from high school was imminent, the members of American Standard gave up the band in 1983, and Vlahos enrolled in film school at NYU. Within a year, though, the four college freshmen reunited as Woofing Cookies to play a show at CBGB, on the strength of a demo tape they’d recorded.
“It was a transcendent moment, one of the best nights of my life,” Vlahos says. “It was so exciting to be on that stage playing music.” Despite regularly breaking up and re-forming, Woofing Cookies began to gain traction — and a fan base. By the summer of 1984, the young musicians were ready to hit the road, heading west to such exotic locales as Pennsylvania and Ohio. “We went in a two-door, 1976 gray Oldsmobile Omega. We took the back seat out, and we packed our singer in with the drums in the back seat,” Vlahos recalls. “I remember we were somewhere in Ohio, and we were passing by a music store, and there was this guitar in the window. It had strapped to it a box of matches, a container of lighter fluid, and a sign that said ‘Jimi Hendrix Special: $50.’ I bought it. I didn’t burn it, but that night was the only time I’ve ever smashed a guitar on stage. I destroyed it.”
Just as Woofing Cookies seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, though, it all came tumbling down. The band’s van threw a rod in South Carolina, so the members had it towed to the next gig, in Athens, Georgia. There they found out that fixing it would cost hundreds of dollars — money they didn’t have and were too proud to ask their parents for. “We stayed with some friends in Athens who knew R.E.M. Their road crew moved our equipment around and were super-nice,” Vlahos says. “We wound up crashing in this house with these skate punks for a few nights. Then we all wound up getting fast-food jobs in Athens, trying to earn enough money to get back on the road.”
They wound up staying in Athens for four months, canceling the rest of their tour dates. Broke, flipping burgers and hundreds of miles from home, they managed to squeeze one good experience out of being stranded. “While we were there, we made friends with Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry of R.E.M., but particularly Peter Buck,” Vlahos recalls. “We lived across the street from him. We went over and knocked on his door one night and said, ‘Hey, would you produce a song for us?’ And he said yes, and he did.”
That Buck-produced song, “In the City,” snared them a record deal after the bandmembers finally limped back home to New Jersey. The independent label Midnight Records released “In the City” as a single, followed by “Horse Gum Tortilla Shoes,” in 1986. The band made a video for “In the City” and started getting favorable mentions in big rock magazines like Creem; Peter Buck’s name on the credits didn’t hurt. But tensions that had arisen during the group’s forced confinement in Athens — along with the fact that respectable adulthood beckoned — grew stronger. In January 1987, Woofing Cookies played its final show. “If we hadn’t been so stupid, I think we had an opportunity to push that to the next level,” Vlahos says. “But we were all starting to get girlfriends and jobs. I wish we’d wanted it a little more.”
Vlahos tried a couple more musical projects after that, but he could never re-create the volatile chemistry of Woofing Cookies. By the early ’90s, Vlahos, now in his mid-twenties, was ready to move on to the next chapter of his life — whatever that might be.
Curiously enough, a Woofing Cookies song from ten years earlier held a hint of his future: “Shakespeare Sux” was a blast of willfully offensive shock value. “We were sixteen,” Vlahos says by way of defense. “The thing is, I didn’t actually think Shakespeare sucked. In high school, I loved Macbeth. From the first time I read it, that’s been one of my favorite plays.” The kid who co-wrote a song about how much the Bard blew was about to embark upon a life in letters.
“I had a twelfth-grade English teacher who introduced me to Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I sat down and wrote sixteen sonnets of my own. I’ve been writing creatively ever since,” Vlahos says. At first, though, writing was little more than a hobby; Vlahos jotted down ideas in journals and penned short stories that he never did anything with. “In film school, I wrote several of the worst screenplays you will ever read,” he confesses. “After the last Woofing Cookies tour ended, with the van and all that, I knew that was an experience that was special. So I wrote ninety, maybe a hundred pages of notes on that and just tucked them away. From time to time I would try to do something with that. I did write a couple of complete screenplays that were drawn from that, and some short stories and essays that were drawn from pieces of it. I imagine somewhere in there I had tried to write something novel-length but just gave up.
“That was the story I was fixated on,” he adds. “The problem was, every time I wrote it, it came out as memoir. Who cares, right? The Woofing Cookies Story? Who cares?” In fact, although Vlahos liked writing, he hadn’t been much of a reader until he was laid up with the flu during his short-lived college career. “I had a fever, and I was in bed for three days. I read a book called The Magus, by John Fowles. It’s a very weird book. I’d never read a book in 48 hours before, but I was stuck in bed, and I couldn’t not turn the page. From that point forward, I’ve been addicted to books.”
That addiction led the college dropout and failed punk star to various retail jobs in bookstores, from small indie shops to big-box stores like Waldenbooks. Then, in need of something more permanent, he answered a newspaper ad in 1992 for a customer-service position at the American Booksellers Association, a venerable trade organization. Vlahos was hired, and with his passion for the printed word, he quickly worked his way up. After a short break in 1997 when he left for a job with famed marketing guru Seth Godin, Vlahos returned to the ABA as director of communications. He hired Kristen Gilligan, his future wife, and played a pivotal role in various ABA campaigns, including antitrust lawsuits against major publishers who were found to be granting illegal discounts to big book-selling chains, to the detriment of indie bookstores. Promoted to chief operating officer in 2009, Vlahos left the ABA two years later to join another industry organization, the Book Industry Study Group.
Rather than being a true-life account of Woofing Cookies’ trials and travails, the book was highly fictionalized. It was still set in the ’80s, but the main character was Harbinger “Harry” Jones, a teenager whose face was disfigured by scars following a lightning strike. He starts a band that loves both punk and classic rock — just like Woofing Cookies — and the members dub themselves the Scar Boys. “It finally clicked,” Vlahos says. “The story wasn’t about me. It was about the power of music. And if I took myself out of the story, what could I say about the power of music?”
As the book took shape, Vlahos opened each chapter with the title of a song he loved, by acts as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Buzzcocks. He even worked some Woofing Cookies songs into the story. “Shamelessly,” he adds. “No shame at all.” He faced challenges, especially when it came to researching burn victims in order to make sure he got Harry’s character right. Overall, though, Vlahos had hit his stride. “I love to write,” he says. “To me, it’s cathartic. It’s often the happiest hour of my day. But the thing, outside my wife and kids, that makes me happiest in the world is playing guitar. I wrote this whole book to describe it, but it is sometimes indescribable.”
But getting The Scar Boys published was nowhere near as pleasurable as getting it written. The book’s path to publication was “twisted, long and painful,” Vlahos says. He wrote and rewrote, got feedback from people he trusted, and went through many revisions. He settled on a framing device: It was a story about teenagers, but it was surrounded by the narrative of Harry as a forty-year-old man, looking back on his youth. Vlahos found an agent, but he couldn’t find the book a home. “They said the problem was the book had a boy protagonist and it was set in the ’80s. We heard that over and over again.” With stacks of rejections piling up and unwilling to change his main character and setting, he turned to his most trusted reader.
“My wife, Kristen, is always my first and best editor,” Vlahos explains. “One day Kristen said, ‘Why did you jam that forty-year-old character into your young-adult novel?’ I was like, ‘Young-adult novel?’ I didn’t set out to write a young-adult novel. I let that marinate for a few days, and then I realized she was right. I went back, took out all the scenes of forty-year-old Harry, strung the rest together, rewrote the whole thing.” Now clearly falling under the genre of young-adult fiction, The Scar Boys became much more appealing to publishers. After soliciting testimonials from some of the booksellers he’d gotten to know through the ABA, Vlahos finally secured a contract with the British publisher Egmont, and was even able to get a glowing cover from his old Woofing Cookies benefactor, Peter Buck. Positive reviews followed, including kudos from the New York Times, which called it “a wry, stylish tale.” In 2014, for the first time in two decades, Vlahos went on tour — armed with books instead of records. Still, he couldn’t resist the urge to bring his guitar along and perform songs for the teens who showed up at his bookstore events. “It was insane how much travel I did that year for that book,” he says.
It paid off. Sales were good for a debut novel, and the book did well critically. It was even a finalist for the prestigious William C. Morris Award, an American Library Association accolade that “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” As Vlahos notes, “It’s a huge honor and boost to a career.” Egmont wanted more, so it contracted for a sequel to The Scar Boys. Vlahos started on Scar Girl, which picks up where its predecessor left off — only it focuses on Harry’s bandmate, bassist Cheyenne. Rather than being a straightforward narrative like The Scar Boys, Scar Girl is structured as one long interview with the members of the group, giving it a different — but just as emotionally evocative — vibe.
Egmont closed its U.S. operation before Scar Girl could come out, however. Vlahos scrambled, and the publishing house Carolrhoda Lab picked it up. As relieved as he was, Vlahos had misgivings. “I wanted to write something else,” he says. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do that. But the thought that I could continue writing about, and talking to kids about, the power of music — that was like an aphrodisiac. It did complete the circuit.”
While on the road promoting first The Scar Boys and then Scar Girl, Vlahos made one thing clear to his teenage audiences: Despite the fact that the books are steeped in the pop culture of his youth, he wasn’t trying to foist the ’80s on them. “When we were kids in the early ’80s, all we heard about from adults was how great the ’60s were,” he says. “They protested a war. They made civil rights happen. They stood up to the government. And whatever we were doing was like, ‘Nice job, little people. That’s some cute music you’re playing, but it doesn’t matter.’ That’s where punk grew out of, right? It was a big eff-you. All those old rock stars sold out, anyway. That’s what we were rebelling against.
“When I was on tour,” he continues, “I told every kid, ‘Look, I’m here talking to you about a book that’s set in the ’80s, but I’m not here to tell you it was a great decade. In fact, it wasn’t. It was pretty ridiculous. Right now is your time to make a culture. Make it what you will. Draw from what we did as much or as little as you want, but no one should tell you the right way or the wrong way to do it.’ That’s the message I wanted to deliver to kids: the power of music to heal, but also the power of music to change. I was a little self-conscious that I was talking to all these kids about The Scar Boys, which is a period piece. And I am a living, walking period piece.”
“I knew I wanted to write a story that wasn’t based on my personal experiences,” Vlahos says of Fishbowl’s unusual premise. “As a writer, I felt I had something to prove to myself, that I could write creatively without relying on my own personal narrative. The story idea came to me in 2008. This guy Ian Usher had gone through this incredibly acrimonious divorce, and he decided, ‘I want to start anew.’ So he put his car, his house, his life, even his friends and his cat, up for auction on eBay. He became an Internet meme. I saw that, and I was like, ‘What would it be like if someone auctioned off their actual life? Like, not just their belongings, but their life?’ What would cause someone to do that? I thought back to a movie I saw in high school called Whose Life Is It Anyway?, starring Richard Dreyfuss, about this sculptor who has an accident and is paralyzed from the neck down. His life is creativity, so he decides he wants to end his life. It’s a movie about physician-assisted suicide, which really affected and stuck with me.”
The radical choice to make Glio an actual character came not out of a desire for novelty, but out of necessity — and from an inspired source. “Jared, the dad who has the brain tumor, is the character, but his brain is disintegrating,” Vlahos explains. “It’s hard to write a character who’s not there, and I wanted another perspective. I had just read [Markus Zusak’s] The Book Thief, and I loved that death was the narrator. So I was like, ‘Okay, in my story, I can get at Jared through the brain tumor.’ It was really a nod to The Book Thief. Everyone who’s read the character of Glio tells me they find him fascinating. It is sort of a special sauce that makes the book. Glio was incredibly fun to write. He does have an arc. He starts out not knowing that he’s a murderer and a thief.
“She’s thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a succession plan in this for me.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, how cool would this be?’”
“I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t necessarily understand the themes of what I write until after I’m finished and have a little distance,” he adds. “I set out to write a book about euthanasia, which is clearly a thread throughout the book. But I would say it is not a book about euthanasia. Ultimately, it’s a book about the conflict of old media and new, and that clash of the different ways we understand the truth. It ties into what I’m always trying to say: Always question authority, and never take things at face value.”
For all its unorthodoxy and deep themes, Fishbowl is already getting high praise from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. It’s being published in twelve languages in seventeen countries. “I keep pinching myself that this is real,” Vlahos says. But around the time he sealed the deal with Bloomsbury to publish Life in a Fishbowl, Vlahos had another reason to pinch himself.
They pondered using the money from book advances to move someplace “super-cheap,” Vlahos says. “We thought maybe I could write and we’d get fast-food jobs or something. We were rethinking our lives from the ground up.” They considered New Hampshire and North Carolina, but Colorado was at the top of their list. Kristen had lived in Boulder for a few years after college and had fond memories of the Centennial State. Vlahos knew Joyce Meskis of the Tattered Cover well; she’d been the president of the ABA when he started there in 1992. “So I said, ‘Let me call Joyce and see what kind of jobs there are in Denver for someone like me.’ I called her, and we got to talking,” he recalls. “We talked for a while, actually, about different things I could do, different publishing opportunities, different consulting opportunities. And at the end of the conversation, Joyce goes, ‘Listen, do you have any interest in the store?’”
It took Vlahos a moment to comprehend what Meskis was offering: ownership of the Tattered Cover.
“She said she was at an age where she was starting to think about retirement,” he says. “She never thought she’d retire, so she didn’t have a succession plan. Her kids loved the business but didn’t want it for their own. Her senior staff had been with her for so long, but they were at the points in their careers where they were a little more risk-averse. And here I was, this guy with all this book-industry experience, and she knows me, and she knows my reputation. She’s thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a succession plan in this for me.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, how cool would this be?’” For years, Vlahos and Gilligan had harbored the dream of owning a bookstore, but they’d never seriously planned for it. Now an opportunity had been laid at their feet — not just to own any old bookstore, but to own one of the top bookstores in America. “We started the conversation in June of 2014, and we talked for many, many months about how to make it work, financially and logistically,” Vlahos says. “We hit on this idea of this two-year transition. Then in March of 2015, the same year I got my two-book deal from Bloomsbury, we consummated the Tattered Cover deal.”
The couple immediately sold their house in Connecticut and bought a new one, sight unseen, in Littleton — a symptom of Denver’s housing market. “We kept putting in bids on houses over and above asking, and we were told, ‘Unless you have cash and can pay within thirty days, don’t talk to us,’ Vlahos remembers. “It turned out to be great, a wonderful house in a wonderful neighborhood.” Vlahos, Gilligan and their two young sons moved out that spring. It just so happened that the Tattered Cover’s Highlands Ranch store was relocating to Aspen Grove at the same time, so they rolled up their sleeves, helped box things up and pitched in on the move, getting to know their new team in the process.
The terms of the two-year ownership transition — which will end on July 1, 2017, when Meskis officially retires — have allowed Vlahos and Gilligan to ease into their new roles at the helm of the Tattered Cover. Not that they’re in it alone. “Joyce is still the owner and will always be a business partner of ours, but for this year she’s taken a step back. She’s still here all the time. She’s probably downstairs right now,” Vlahos says. “The nature of this business is very collaborative. I work really closely with everyone as a team, so I’m not trying to sit on high and issue edicts. And Joyce is still very much a part of that conversation.”
Changes are in the pipeline for the Tattered Cover, but Vlahos isn’t in a hurry to fix something that isn’t broken. “Goal One for me has been, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ Tattered Cover is an institution, and people treasure and value it. To come in and try to turn it upside down would be foolish,” he explains. “But there are Goals Two through Ten. There are some places we saw opportunities. Tattered Cover had done very little to cultivate relationships with schools, so Kristen has taken that on. She’s gone from school to school, and now we’re bringing authors into schools in the spring and the fall, two to three times a week. I think we were doing one in-store fundraiser a year, and now we’re doing several a year. We launched a teen book festival this year. We want to connect all ages of children with books and authors. We’ve developed teen advisory boards, and at Aspen Grove we’ve got forty kids on that board. They write reviews that go on the shelves. They help us plan events. It’s great.”
They also overhauled their coffee-shop service, buying department and merchandise. But Vlahos likes to emphasize not what’s changing, but what’s staying the same. “We’re still customer-service focused. We’re still doing 500-plus events a year. We still want that warm, inviting, living-room-like environment that Joyce created. It’s a balance between preserving the core of what the Tattered Cover is and adding to it.
“I think tissue rejection was maybe my number-one concern coming in — from the staff, from the customers and from the industry,” he adds. “The industry embraced us right away, because they knew Kristen and me. I will say that with the staff and the customers, there has not been a moment of tissue rejection. It’s been fantastic. We were worried, but it never materialized. The staff were so welcoming and accommodating as we learned. As much as we know, every day is still a sip of water from the firehose.”
Bruce Springsteen. The rock icon appeared at the Tattered Cover on Colfax on November 30 in support of his new autobiography, Born to Run. It almost didn’t happen; the Boss’s book tour wasn’t supposed to come anywhere near Denver. But Vlahos rallied the Tattered Cover staff, and they made a video — now on YouTube — of Vlahos making an impassioned, personal plea to Springsteen, one Jersey rocker to another. In the video, Vlahos even picks up his acoustic guitar and walks through the store, singing Springsteen’s classic “Growin’ Up” while employees wander by holding up pro-Boss signs.
“It worked!” Vlahos recalls, still in disbelief. “We sent it in to the publisher, and the publisher went gaga over it. But Bruce’s tour couldn’t accommodate us. They picked six cities, and Denver wasn’t on the list. But he loved being on the book tour so much, he added dates. And because of that video, we were first on that list. That got him here. He was cool. He was a very humble and reserved and quiet guy. But, you know, he was Springsteen.”
Springsteen and nostalgia aside, Vlahos doesn’t miss the East Coast. “Everything about life in Colorado is better,” he says. “Everything. Having been here a number of times over the years when I worked in the industry, I grokked how important this institution of the Tattered Cover was to the metropolitan area. Since we got here, that’s been consistently reaffirmed.
“When we first got here,” he continues, “Kristen and I knew we were going to need two cars. I brought one of our cars for inspection, and I was talking to the woman at the inspection place. I had Connecticut plates, and I told the woman I’d be coming back with a second car. She sagged her shoulders and sighed and complained, kind of tongue-in-cheek but kind of not, about all the people moving to Colorado and all the traffic and how everyone’s losing their nice home town of Denver. She seemed a little mad at me. So I said to her, ‘What if I told you that I was going to be the new owner of the Tattered Cover?’ And she said, ‘Tattered Cover? I love Tattered Cover!’ And suddenly she was my best friend.”
Len Vlahos will appear at the Tattered Cover Aspen Grove, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton, at 7 p.m. Friday, January 6, at a release party for Life in a Fishbowl. Find out more at tatteredcover.com.