“Denver’s literature scene is ripe for a real boom,” says author (Carnality and Carnality 2) and editor (Suspect Press) Josiah Hesse. “It’s where the comedy scene was ten years ago.” Those words were startling, since the independent book business has been under siege for over a decade, but as we looked around at what’s happening in this city, we realized that Hesse could be reading ahead.
Books are far more than beach reading these days; they’re the focus of events wild and wonderful around town, including Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Lit Fest, which opens its fourteenth edition this week. Not only is the underground literature scene coming to life, but both academic programs and established enterprises ranging from the Naropa Institute to the Denver Public Library recognize the power of that scene and are incorporating it in their very aboveground events.
So is the Tattered Cover. “While we face challenges — all small businesses do — we're very bullish on the future of books and reading, especially in metro Denver,” says Len Vlahos, now the co-owner of the Tattered Cover, an almost-fifty-year institution famous around the world.
Read all about ten of the organizations helping to write the next chapter for this city’s literary scene.
Lighthouse Writers Workshop
Fresh out of an MFA program, writers Michael Henry and Andrea Dupree founded Lighthouse Writers Workshop in 1997, with simple goals: “We wanted to write and to hang out with other writers. We wanted to publish our work. We wanted to teach,” explains Henry, now the group’s executive director. Over the years, Lighthouse has met those goals while growing into one of the biggest literary groups in the Rocky Mountain West. At its home at 1515 Race Street, writers of all levels can learn from some of the best minds in the city, including Colorado Book Award winners like Nick Arvin and Diana Khoi Nguyen. The group provides multi-year mentorship for authors of books, other classes for youth, veterans, refugees and more, as well as readings and the annual LitFest. This year’s edition will be bigger and better than ever; LitFest 2019 runs from June 7 through June 21.
Tattered Cover Bookstore
Under the legendary Joyce Meskis, who acquired the Tattered Cover 45 years ago, when it was a tiny, three-year-old independent bookstore in Cherry Creek, Tattered achieved international acclaim not just as a haven for book lovers, but as a bastion of free speech. Meskis was equally savvy when she came up with her succession plan, selling the Tattered Cover (by then three stores in metro Denver, plus two franchises at the airport and one at Union Station) to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, the husband-and-wife couple who trained with Meskis and took over entirely in July 2017. They’ve continued to uphold Meskis’s high standards while adding numerous programs of their own, including the inaugural Big Summer Read, a shared reading experience for the state in 2019. “We’ve been thrilled at both the passion and breadth of the literary scene,” says Vlahos. “Passion in that we launched a new Friend of Tattered Cover program last August, and support has far exceeded our expectations. Breadth in that our customers read everything. We see communities coalesce around not only new fiction, but around poetry, science fiction, cooking, mystery, science books, history and more.”
Rocky Mountain Land Library
The influence of the Tattered Cover stretches far and wide, with a major stop in Park County at the home of the Rocky Mountain Land Library. Jeff Lee and Ann Martin, longtime booksellers at the Tattered Cover, were on a book-buying trip in Wales in the ’90s when they came upon St. Deiniol’s Residential Library. That started their dream of creating a residential library in Colorado, one where they could donate the tens of thousands of books they’d been collecting on the people and land of the West and stashing in their Capitol Hill apartment. The result was the Rocky Mountain Land Library, which created a home for many of those books (and programs focusing on them) at Buffalo Peaks Ranch in Park County. Closer to home, Lee and Martin opened a branch in Globeville this spring, which is not only stocked with plenty of books, but is also a venue for author appearances, classes and other special events.
Slow down, have a drink and read a book. That’s the philosophy behind BookBar, the passion project of Nicole Sullivan, who uses her place at 4280 Tennyson Street as a community gathering space where people can relax and bask in their love of books. In a world where Barnes & Noble and Borders gobbled up indie bookshops and then Amazon ravaged those corporate beasts, the idea of opening a neighborhood bookstore seems daunting at best — if not downright self-destructive. But Sullivan’s idea of pairing wine, bites — many made with ingredients grown on the patio — and books has proven to be a success. Once again, readers have somewhere to go and do what they love best: lose themselves in literature. In addition to welcoming in neighbors, BookBar hosts signings, poetry nights, happy hours and other literary events, including storytimes for kids and a silent book club.
Mile High Comics
In 1969, when he was thirteen, Chuck Rozanski started selling comics from his parents’ basement. Back then, comics were considered the trashy hobby of geeks and freaks. At nineteen, Rozanski opened the first Mile High Comics in Boulder, and in the years since, he’s become a driving force in Denver’s pop literary community, watching the zine and comic scenes explode. “Early zines in Denver were fun, but quite amateurish,” he says. “Original comics were almost nonexistent. Today we have dozens of highly talented artists and writers living in Denver.” Through it all, Mile High Comics — which has had multiple outposts over the years and is now headquartered in a massive warehouse at 4600 Jason Street — has championed the art form and is in part responsible for its success. “We have sought to validate visual and sequential storytelling as being equal to, or even better on occasion, than prose, film or still images in conveying evocative ideas,” Rozanski confirms. With 300,000-plus comics in stock plus an assortment of toys, posters and other geekery, Mile High has become a hub for Front Range comic culture and collectors around the world.
Mutiny Information Cafe
With spots like Breakdown Books, P&L Press Infoshop and Boulder’s Lefthand Books closing, Mutiny Information Cafe — a lefty book/record/comics shop at 2 South Broadway that has existed in various forms for three decades — has taken up the mantle. Under the ownership of former 3 Kings owner Jim Norris, a punk pioneer and zinester who earned the title King of Denver’s Underground, Mutiny offers space for the sorts of scrappy acts and art forms that more corporate venues avoid. The shop, replete with a coffee bar and pinball machine, has housed everything from R. Alan Brooks’s podcast Motherf**ker in a Cape to Bree Davies’s Hello? Denver? Are You There?. The space regularly hosts readings by groups, including the South Broadway Ghost Society and Punketry, as well as individual author appearances by the likes of Jason Heller, Brice Maiurro and Dave Paco. In recent months, the shop has been targeted by the far-right podcast Major League Liberty for opposing Donald Trump and his supporters. Even so, Mutiny continues.
Birdy co-founder Jonny DeStefano says that his arts and culture magazine comes from “a place of love.” And with work by artists Mike King and Mark Mothersbaugh as well as a mix of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, there’s a lot to love about Birdy. Now it could really take off as Jason Heller, best known as a music critic and sci-fi and horror author, takes the helm as editor, working alongside DeStefano and co-founder Christy Thacker. With his deep ties to the sci-fi scene, Heller plans to bring in national contributors to broaden Birdy’s appeal while continuing to showcase local writers. His goal is to make the publication decadent, something “strictly made for the sensual pleasures.” Along with Suspect Press, (Salt), Slant’d and many more, Birdy has pioneered craft cultural journalism in an era when many media outlets have cut back their coverage of the arts.
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Denver Zine Library
The Denver Zine Library opened in a backyard shed in 2003. Under Kelly Shortandqueer, it’s become a champion of local zinesters and self-published artists. “We’ve worked to create and hold spaces for independent and underrepresented voices and perspectives,” Shortandqueer says. “We do this not only by maintaining a physical space where community members can browse our collection of over 20,000 zines, but also by hosting and supporting events that showcase zinesters and DIY culture.” Grassroots run and organized, the library has been housed at the Temple, at 2400 Curtis Street, since 2014. “At times the DZL has felt like Denver’s best-kept secret, with a small but enthusiastic group of visitors and supporters; and at other times, it feels like the energy and excitement for the DZL is nearly limitless,” Shortandqueer adds. The DZL resurrected the annual Denver Zine Fest in 2015; this year’s is set for Sunday, June 23, at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park.
The Art of Storytelling
When writers Steven Dunn and Lorenzo James — old Navy buddies — started doing public readings in Denver, they discovered that they were the only people of color in the crowd. Wanting to create equity in the literary community and give peers a chance to practice public readings, Dunn and James founded the Art of Storytelling in 2016, a monthly reading and open mic now also run by Thuyanh Astbury and Ahja Fox. “This is a place to play, practice, and be supportive,” the group explains on its website. “A place to celebrate something we really give a damn about: People and Writing.” The events take place at Prodigy Coffeehouse, 3801 East 40th Avenue, which runs a barista apprenticeship program for youth.
Denver Public Library
It’s not just free books for bibliophiles that attract over four million collective visitors to the Denver Public Library’s more than twenty locations every year. DPL’s reference librarians also help writers do their research — everyone from Denver historian Phil Goodstein to soul-food scholar Adrian Miller to rising author Kali Fajardo-Anstine have leaned heavily on the archives at the Denver Central Library and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library for their stories. If you feel overwhelmed by the millions of items in circulation, the library offers reader advisory services for adults, teens and kids — all personalized by well-read librarians eager to help you find your next book. DPL even hosts book clubs for people looking to dig through pages with others; themes include sci-fi and fantasy, mystery and general nonfiction and fiction groups. Even home-bound people can take advantage of the library’s online books, storytimes that are one call away (offerings are in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Amharic), and web-based reading groups. Oh, yes: The library also lends magazines, audiobooks, movies, records...