Tattered Cover Owners Sell After a Volatile Year

New owners are taking over the Tattered Cover.
New owners are taking over the Tattered Cover. 5280 Lens Mafia
After a topsy-turvy year, Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, who took over the Tattered Cover bookstore from founder Joyce Meskis in 2017, have sold the independent chain to lifelong Denver book lovers and businessmen Kwame Spearman and David Back, who will be heading up a group of investors under the brand Bended Page LLC.

"Thanks to five decades of love and support from you, our customers, Tattered Cover has earned a special place in the community of Metro Denver," Vlahos and Gilligan wrote to customers in announcing the deal. "The stores have been a lynchpin of thought, creativity, and culture since 1971, and we have been both proud and humbled to participate in its success these last several years."

Despite that history, the company started facing tough times after COVID-19 came to Colorado.

"The impact of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic made it clear that Tattered Cover was going to need not only new management, but an infusion of capital," they continued. "The difficult sales environment has not kept pace with the business’s mounting debt. We saw this coming a long way off and have spent months doing all we can to ensure a bright future for the bookstores, even if our roles had to change."

The Tattered Cover, which is approaching its fiftieth anniversary, is coming off of a turbulent year of cancellations, closures and even a boycott after the store made a proud statement that it would not be taking a stand in the movement against police violence, arguing that the company had a time-tested policy favoring open discourse for all customers and citing a firm belief in free speech, expression and the exchange of ideas.

In that letter, Gilligan and Vlahos looked back at the store's long history of protecting a wide variety of ideas. For example, the Tattered Cover had refused to cancel an appearance by Ted Nugent shortly after he made insensitive remarks in the wake of the Columbine shooting that drew threats and criticism from customers and staff alike. The owners also pointed out that under Meskis, the store did not take a stand on the Defense of Marriage Act, despite outrage from the LGBTQ community. Too, the business had claimed neutrality on Denver's urban camping ban, which led to months of boycotts from Occupy Denver — in part because the Tattered Cover remained a member of the Downtown Denver Partnership, which had actively supported the ban.

When the Tattered Cover announced that it was not taking a position on the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence, many in the community protested, and major literary institutions like Lighthouse Writers Workshop took their business elsewhere.
click to enlarge Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, co-owners of the Tattered Cover. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, co-owners of the Tattered Cover.
Anthony Camera
The owners soon backpedaled on their neutrality statement and committed to anti-racist training, among other shifts that would make the company a more inclusive space. But withdrawing their bold declaration of inclusive speech drew criticism from others who claimed the store was bending to cancel culture. Either way, the business sustained another hit in a year already full of them.

Spearman and Back, the new owners, spent their childhoods shopping at the Tattered Cover. Back's first job was running the cash register at the book store, when he was just fifteen. In their adult years, they've both been involved in international business and corporate management.

“The Tattered Cover, and all it embodies for us as Denver natives — reading, learning, the independent spirit, buying local, and most importantly community and connection — are the ingredients that drew us to this endeavor,” explained Spearman, who will serve as CEO, in a statement on the deal. “As we approach Tattered Cover’s 50th Anniversary, we are honored and excited to invest in this important community treasure and ensure it remains a piece of the Colorado experience for generations to come.”

Back, who will be chairman of the board, added: “We see Tattered Cover as more than a bookstore. It’s a place where memories are made and where everyone should feel at home. Our vision includes growing opportunities for community engagement, connection, and conversations. We see this happening within our walls, but also more directly in the community, and we are eager to bring this vision to reality over the coming months.”
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris