“Legendary” is one of those sneaky cliches that’s been diminished by overuse, but in the book industry there’s no other word for Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore. Since they were first discovered by mainstream media in the seventies and celebrated as a marvel, the idea of huge retail book spaces with lots of comfortable seating has been copied by chain stores far and wide. The “big box bookstore” has become so commonplace that you would almost think big business came up with the idea. Think again.
Owner Joyce Meskis and her staff of visionaries probably never guessed that one day they’d be surrounded by dozens of cookie-cutter knockoffs. But the amazing thing is that so much of the essence of Tattered Cover lives on in the current stores. In the way that a church is said to be the people, not the building, a 1970’s customer transported to the Colfax store circa 2010 would probably be right at home- if a little surprised by the computer screens and extensive selection of vampire books.
There’s a lot to love about the place, but this is my top ten:
1. Pioneer spirit. There was the taking over of an old department store in Cherry Creek in 1986. Four floors of books? It seemed crazy at the time. Then a huge store in a forlorn corner of downtown in the early nineties, which is now smack in the middle of things.
When Cherry Creek became too upscale for its own good a few years back, they re-located to the gorgeous, sadly languishing Lowenstein Theatre in a neighborhood of East Colfax that skeptics said could never support a bookstore. (They’ve embraced it.)
And the Highlands Ranch store has brought TC culture into the deep suburbs. What a shock to lazy stereotyping to see what these supposedly conservative bookbuyers are reading.
2. Long-term thinking. Staff tend to stick around. Books are given a fair chance on the shelves to prove themselves. And customers are consequently loyal.
3. No gimmicks. Every time some new fright has come along to scare the pants off indie booksellers over the past 20 years, stores have rushed to the latest gimmicky prescriptions. Not here. They know what they do that distinguishes them, and they just keep trying to do it better.
4. Fierce commitment to freedom of speech. Nothing rankles Tattered Cover more than being told they can’t sell something, and they have the (successful) court cases to prove it.
5. Show University presses the love. Back when it was unusual for a general trade bookstore to stock very deeply in university presses, Joyce saw them as both essential and potentially profitable. Again with the vision! My current buyer, Cathy Langer, who has an incredibly full plate, continues this tradition by treating each title with respect and giving it due consideration. Every book we publish gets a shot, and every important book gets representation. This careful culling is exactly what authors and readers most need from booksellers, and is why bookselling is a profession.
6. Authors galore. The TC reading, lecture and film calendar is the envy of the bookselling world. But I am waiting for ace events-wrangler Charles Stillwagon, who has seen it all, to write his behind the scenes memoir of authors, their publicists and their handlers. That will be something to read.
7. Returns Rescue. Laura Snapp, whose enthusiasms know no bounds, has the thankless task of supervising returns. But every author with a book that hasn’t sold should pray for someone like her to pass final judgment. I don’t know how many times she’s shown me the most fascinating book ever that she’s rescued from the returns pile. The returns process can be ruthless and depressing, but to have someone who can save a book at the last possible moment, giving it a final reprieve before it goes into the box- well, it’s a blessing.
8. Somehow, no ego! Tattered Cover over the years has given back wisdom and participation to the national bookselling community and trade associations for decades- without, as far as I can see, a trace of the “we are Tattered Cover and we are all that” attitude which one could argue they are actually entitled to. Over the years they’ve helped bookshops right in their own backyard get their footing without the slightest competitive hesitation.
9. Always surprising. One should never leave a bookshop without feeling surprised by something- a book you didn’t know you wanted, an overheard conversation, a quirky sideline (boxed wooden matches with retro book jackets, whatever next?) You can’t set foot in any of the TC stores without having your attention drawn toward something compelling.
10. Sense of place. I suppose a store like TC could be anywhere in theory, but in fact it seems rooted in the soil of Denver. The relationships throughout the community run deep, and the “Tattered Cover Gives Back” program is more than a slogan. They do.
I first visited the store as a bookseller around 1990. Avin Domnitz and David Schwartz, my bosses at the time, had planned a meeting with Tattered Cover to talk about how Milwaukee and Denver might somehow work together to advance independent bookselling (Today the independents seem to never stop talking to each other, but back then it was unusual.)
At the last minute David couldn’t make the trip, and Avin asked me to go. Though I managed the flagship Schwartz store at the time, the whole aura of Tattered Cover was deeply intimidating to me. We were treated with great hospitality, but I have no recollections of the meeting except one: the telephone room.
Like most bookstores, we at Schwartz fielded phone calls on the floor while trying not to annoy the live customers. But at Tattered Cover, the incoming volume was such that a whole room was dedicated to operators answering phones. I don’t know which was more striking- the number of people assigned to this job, or the fact of so many incoming calls. In my probably faulty memory, the room glowed with a soft blue light. It seemed a bit other-worldly.
Phone calls to bookstores have slacked off everywhere, replaced by emails and websites. But TC still has a feeling of permanence and vitality, a true destination store.