The Tattered Cover announced recently that Chief Operating Officer Matt Miller will retire at the end of June this year. Miller, who currently oversees all operations for the company, will be stepping down from a four-decade career that began in 1978.
“Matt has been a stalwart member of the Tattered Cover family for most of the history of the store,” says co-owner and CEO Len Vlahos. Former owner Joyce Meskis calls him “a treasure,” adding that “he will be missed.” Sentiments such as these are not uncommon for the departing Miller, who also served on the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association for six years.
“There’s no nicer, smarter, more generous bookseller anywhere than Matt Miller,” says Mitchell Kaplan, who served as ABA president during Miller’s tenure on the board.
We spoke with Miller about his decision to call it a career and step back, about his own history in one of the most important Denver retailers now and in the city’s past. To put it simply: Miller has been an institution at a Denver institution, so it’s only apt that after so long providing words to the Colorado public, Miller would get the last one.
Westword: What’s your earliest memory of the Tattered Cover?
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Matt Miller: I first remember going into Tattered Cover around 1976 as a customer. I was the director of a preschool, and I was probably looking for either children’s books or education books. However, my most vivid memory of the store before I started working there was during the holiday season of 1977. I wanted to buy ten copies of a particular book to give to my staff members at the child-care center. They only had one copy in stock, but offered to order the other copies for me. When I went to pick them up, Joyce, the owner, offered to give me a discount and said she would be happy to wrap each book separately. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to impose on her, so I declined. She then offered to give me the wrapping paper so that I could wrap them myself.
I was so struck by her genuine effort to offer this level of customer service that I never forgot it. Eight months later I started working there. It is that core value of genuine customer service and appreciation that we strive for almost fifty years later.
Do you have a favorite memory?
After 41-plus years, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. There have been so many. I was fortunate to meet many authors, politicians, celebrities and industry leaders throughout the years. Some well known at the time, others just beginning their careers. When I met Fred Rogers, he asked me for my autograph! I also have wonderful memories of hundreds of staff members with whom I worked, some for short periods of time, others for many, many years. And, of course, I had the privilege of working closely with Joyce Meskis, the former owner and guiding spirit of Tattered Cover, for nearly forty years.
Absolutely. But if you had to pick just one memorable moment...
In the early 1980s, we had R. Buckminster Fuller at the store for a signing. For those unfamiliar with Fuller, he was a renowned twentieth-century inventor and visionary. His most famous invention was the geodesic dome. He was in his mid-eighties at the time, but he was delightful in welcoming people and signing his books for nearly two hours. At the end of the event, his grandson, who had accompanied him, asked if he could have a bowl of hot water. It seems that his grandfather had a broken finger and needed some relief. Talk about a trouper. Fuller passed away a few years later, but I’ll always remember him not only as someone who had such an incredible intellect, but also as that gracious, humble person who would not be deterred or inconvenienced from signing books for his fans by something so inconsequential as a broken finger.
How has the bookstore scene changed over the years, do you think? The good and the bad, since there must be a little of both?
To adequately answer that question would require a lengthy essay. I will say that the industry has changed dramatically in many ways. Bookstores experienced incredible growth in the 1980s and early 1990s. That was followed by a rapid expansion of superstore chains and Internet competition that deeply impacted independent bookstores. Although there has been a resurgence of independent stores in recent years, the reality for many stores dealing with low profit margins, increasing wages and rising rents continues to be a challenge.
Bookstores, like other retail businesses, are also subject to the vicissitudes of the economy, weather, and the competition for consumers’ time and resources. Another aspect of the industry that has changed dramatically is the volume of books that are published each year. When I started back in 1978, there were approximately 50,000 new books published per year in the United States. It is now close to 300,000 titles published by mainstream publishers and another million titles that are self-published. Fortunately, there are more tools available to accommodate that kind of volume, but it is still a challenge to try to curate that many books for a limited retail space.
What are the things you’re most proud of, in looking back on your career at the TC?
First Amendment advocacy, staff mentorship and customer interaction. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with many First Amendment issues both at the store, and at a national level. This issue has always been a core value at Tattered Cover, and I’ve been able to help train hundreds of staff members over the years to understand the bookstore’s approach to this issue. Because I’ve been part of the store leadership for many years, it has always been gratifying to see other people grow in their roles in the store and in some cases continue to expand their sphere of influence to the larger industry. Finally, the ability to find the right book for the right person continues to be a joy of bookselling. Books are more than a product. We, as booksellers, have the awesome opportunity and responsibility to share ideas. There is nothing more rewarding.
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You’ve been working with a bookstore for more than four decades now. In all that time, do you have a favorite book? Tough question, I know.
You’re right, that is a tough question. We’ve been asking that question to prospective booksellers for years, and each time I’ve been glad that I didn’t have to answer it myself. So I won’t. But I can tell you one of my favorite recent books. It’s called Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer with Milkweed Editions. By way of telling you what it’s about, I’ll just state its subtitle: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
So what are your plans for retirement? More reading?
Definitely more reading! I also want to spend more time pursuing some other interests that I’ve had over the years. I’m going to be joining the board of the Rocky Mountain Land Library and looking at some other volunteer opportunities. I’m also just trying to be open to other possibilities that may come my way. At some point, my wife and I would like to travel more, which will probably include visiting other bookstores. Books and bookstores are in my blood.