In March, he reached out to owners Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan to see how they were holding up during the stay-at-home order. Times were tough for independent bookstores; even before COVID-19, Amazon had been putting brick-and-mortar booksellers out of business. With its stores closed, the company was wracking up debt, and its survival was far from guaranteed.
For Back, losing the independent bookstore chain would be a tragedy for the city.
"Denver needs Tattered Cover, and Tattered Cover needs Denver," Back says, and so he set out to save it. He reached out to his longtime high school speech and debate rival, Kwame Spearman, an East High graduate, and asked if he would be interested in taking over the bookstore, serving as the chain's CEO. Spearman bit.
The two began to round up investors, including such notable locals as Rockies owner Dick Monfort, the Gart family, former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry, and Pete Turner of Illegal Pete's. National names include former American Booksellers Association head Oren J. Teicher and John Sargent, the former CEO of Macmillan Publishers.
The new owners took over on December 9 and will keep Vlahos on for the next few months as Spearman, who has significant business chops but has never run a bookstore, learns the ropes.
The acquisition makes Tattered Cover the largest independent bookseller in the country with a Black CEO. That will come as welcome news for longtime patrons who blasted the business in June, when then-owners Vlahos and Gilligan issued a statement about why they would not officially support the Black Lives Matter movement's fight against police violence, and instead would preserve the store's long history of neutrality on issues and respect for multiple ideas. In response to activist pressure, the owners then backpedaled, causing free-speech advocates who supported the Tattered Cover's neutrality to also balk.
"We have a vision for the Tattered Cover that it is the community," says Spearman. "We want to create a brand and physical spaces in which every single person feels welcome. What that means is every person can walk in and find that book that they love. ... We’re incredibly committed to doing that. With the BLM controversy, we’re looking forward and not backward. I can tell you, I think Black lives matter, and we will ensure the Tattered Cover will be on the right side of history."
This summer, some Tattered workers also took to social media to blast the company for paying rock-bottom wages, a situation the new owners will be looking into and possibly changing.
"Everything is on our agenda," says Spearman. "One of the things we’re determined to do is to make Tattered Cover one of the top places to work. Our employees are the only reason the business exists. One of the reasons we went out and raised the investment capital we did is to enhance that. We’ll start with our workers and then our customers, and hopefully get Tattered Cover back to its golden days."
In a time when so many businesses are going into debt and shutting down, Spearman knows that his optimism is bold.
"Most people are bearish on retail right now," he says. "To be honest, I’m the exact opposite. Retail is not going anywhere, but it needs to be evolved."
For him, that means building on two things that the Tattered Cover has long done well: offering a strong selection of books and other items for customers, and creating memorable experiences, whether that be spaces to lounge and read or compelling events. And the company will have new spaces to activate. Over the next few months, Tattered's downtown store will be moving from the building at the end of the 16th Street Mall that it's occupied since 1994 to McGregor Square, across from Coors Field; another location will soon open in Westminster. Tattered also has stores in the Lowenstein complex on East Colfax Avenue and in Aspen Grove, along with an outpost at Union Station and franchise shops at Denver International Airport.
Despite his upbeat vision, Spearman recognizes that many brick-and-mortar businesses are on the brink of closure because of the pandemic and desperately need the public's help.
"While this is amazing news and one of the first positive stories, it doesn’t change the fact that small businesses in Denver are in the fight of their life," he says. "Denver needs to support its small businesses or there won’t be any left. People need to keep shopping local...because times are really tough."