Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore

In the Tattered Cover Bookstore, we find the books that bind Denver together.

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The Tattered Cover’s staff is its lifeblood. They play matchmaker, discussing which books customers have liked to figure out what they should read next. They play detective, listening to customers’ sketchy details of a book they’re looking for – “I read it in 1955 when I was 12, it had a yellow cover with a dog and some twins” – and deduce what book it is. In this example, it was Little Dog Sniff and the Twins by Geraldine Foster Smith.

Jackie Blem, who runs the LoDo coffee shop but also works as a bookseller and runs the store’s blog, has worked at Tattered Cover for 12 years. Like all employees, she had to go through an involved application process, including an essay question on how her personal philosophy matched up with the store’s, before she was hired. Her colleagues have been a diverse lot, ages 16 to 82, including students taking time off before starting graduate school, ex-teachers and ex-lawyers.  

“As an independent bookstore, we can’t sell books for less than we’re paying for them like Amazon does,” Blem said. “But we offer the experience of really knowledgeable people who love to talk about books and will walk around the store with you.”

Blem reads about two books a week. She highlights her favorites on the “Jackie Recommends” shelf and on the store blog, and she takes special pleasure drawing attention to local authors and first-time novelists. Denver author Jennifer Petkus is one of them; her debut novel Good Cop, Dead Cop recently made the recommended shelf.

“The first time I went in and saw it on the stacks I was jumping up and down and taking pictures of it,” Petkus said.

Denver residents sometimes take the store for granted, she said. But she was reminded of just how lucky the city is when her sister-in-law visited from a small town in Kansas where the closest thing to a bookstore was Wal-Mart.

“Whenever she would visit us, it was like this great pilgrimage to The Tattered Cover,” Petkus said. “She would go running from stack to stack grabbing books.”

Employees are told that no matter how open-minded they are, there’s bound to be something in the store they’ll find offensive – Tattered Cover is there to promote free expression, not to judge. Meskis defends her customers’ First Amendment right to read whatever they want to. That policy was put to the test in 2002, when a district attorney obtained a warrant demanding she turn over her records to find out if a suspected meth lab operator had purchased a book on making illegal drugs. Meskis refused to hand over the information and took the case to court. She’s certainly not pro-meth lab, but she felt it would set terrible precedent to allow law enforcement to monitor book sales.

Her stand won her acclaim from free speech advocates, but she also faced criticism from those who thought she was protecting criminals. After a two-year legal battle, the Colorado Supreme Court sided unanimously with Tattered Cover. In the end, it turned out the purchase at the center of the debate wasn’t about drugs at all; it was about Japanese calligraphy – the defendant at the center of the case worked as a tattoo artist and wanted to learn more about Asian designs.

The Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek became a landmark, as much a part of Denver as the gold capitol dome or the mountains in the west. It jarred the sensibilities of many Coloradans to see that location move in 2006 to a new home in the former Lowenstein Theater on Colfax Avenue after skyrocketing rents forced the bookstore out of the Cherry Creek shopping district it had helped establish. It was the end of an era, and though Tattered Cover is sorely missed in Cherry Creek, the Colfax store has flourished. In 2004, Tattered Cover opened a location in Highlands Ranch, imbuing a new suburban shopping center with the character of the older stores, and soon there will be locations at Denver International Airport.

Meskis calls herself “the eternal optimist” when asked about Tattered Cover’s future. Content will come in different forms, but nothing equals the experience of holding a book. Tattered Cover is evolving with the times. It can’t offer the belowcost discounts on new books offered by online retailers, but it has started selling used books at a fraction of the cost of buying new ones. The store has also unveiled the new Espresso Book Machine, which allows readers to take certain eBooks and turn them into physical books.

Despite her success over the decades, Meskis has found it easy to retain her humility. Gazing every day at hundreds of thousands of books she hasn’t read will do that. “It’s an extremely humbling experience,” she said.

It’s that respect for knowledge and its vessel, books, that has kept her going all these years. Her philosophy is as true as it is simple: The more books in the more people’s hands, the better the world is.

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