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Tattered Cover's Rapid About-Face on Black Lives Matter Solidarity

Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, co-owners of the Tattered Cover.
Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, co-owners of the Tattered Cover.
Anthony Camera

The owners of the Tattered Cover Book Store issued a press release on Saturday, June 6, breaking the independent bookstore chain's silence “in the wake of the events that have unfolded over the last ten days.” They were speaking, of course, about the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality that followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a crime caught on camera that set off worldwide protests that still continue.

Now, Tattered Cover co-owners Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan have recanted their original statement, admitting that they were on the wrong side of history. (They did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.)

Their initial missive stated that while Tattered Cover as an institution was sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, they were choosing to remain effectively neutral, calling the store's “nearly fifty-year policy of not engaging in public debate” something that was “more significant” than a white-owned business speaking out. They stressed their belief that Tattered Cover’s “value to the community” was “to provide a place where access to ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, can happen in an uninhibited way.”

This last statement sparked reaction from award-winning queer author of color Carmen Maria Machado, who posted this response on Twitter on Monday morning, June 8: “I’ve just told my publicist to cancel my 6/23 event in conjunction with @TatteredCover. Unlike the owners, I know that choosing neutrality in matters of oppression  only reinforces structural violence. To hide behind phrases like 'the free exchange of ideas' is unthinkable to me.” Many authors and readers agreed with Machado, calling Tattered Cover to task for issuing a tone-deaf statement, especially in the current socio-political climate. Fans of Tattered Cover expressed their displeasure on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, saying they were canceling orders and shifting their business to BookBar and black-owned bookstores. Other Denver bookstores chimed in, too, both directly and indirectly.

It was a public-relations disaster on the level of the similarly obtuse Ink! Coffee debacle in RiNo back in November 2017, when the coffee shop posted a sign that stated it had been "Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014."

But the damage didn’t stop there. That initial post went out of its way to remind readers of other points in local and national history when Tattered Cover didn’t side with justice. The owners recounted how the shop insisted on hosting Ted Nugent, outspoken Second Amendment supporter and unapologetic racist, a short time after the tragic school shooting at Columbine High School. Nugent was on record saying things that Tattered Cover admits were “insensitive and abhorrent,” but the bookseller still went ahead with the event “despite staff opposition and the threat of violence.”

How the Ted Nugent story is a point in Tattered Cover’s favor was unclear. Equally unclear is why the owners didn’t stop at that. The Tattered Cover message specified other points in local and national history where the bookseller had chosen to remain silent: Denver’s urban camping ban and the fight for marriage equality.

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Denver writer Manuel Aragon shared his response on Facebook: “They get it so wrong. And then double, triple, quadruple-down on how wrong they’ve been historically. Ouch.”

Lighthouse Writers, where Aragon works, decided to sever its longstanding ties with Tattered Cover, and let the company know on Monday, June 8.

That “ouch” was evidently something felt by Tattered Cover as well, since co-owners Vlahos and Gilligan followed up with a damage-control message on June 8, after responses like Aragon’s and cancellations like Machado’s. It was simply titled “An Apology to Customers and Staff,” and it’s an “unqualified and unequivocal” mea culpa. “We are horrified at having violated your trust,” the message says, and then makes a statement that’s as much admission as it is a vow: “Tattered Cover will no longer stand by while human rights are being violated. To be silent is to be complicit, to be neutral in the face of injustice is an act of injustice itself.”

Based on the responses already widely shared and how clearly the initial post laid out Tattered Cover’s history of complicity, it may have been too little, too late. Lighthouse Writers will continue to take its business elsewhere. 

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