Joyce Meskis, the longtime owner of Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, has died. She was 80 years old.
Meskis was a divorced mother of two young daughters when she purchased the Tattered Cover in 1974. She ran it for more than four decades, growing the store from a single 950-sq.-ft. bookstore into one of the nation’s most recognizable and largest independents, covering 40,000 sq.-ft. across four floors in a former department store. At its height, Tattered Cover had four locations in the Denver metro area, and three more at Denver airports in partnership with Hudson Booksellers. Meskis sold the store in 2017 to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan. The store remains in operation today under the leadership of Kwame Spearman, who purchased it in late 2020.
Meskis became a legendary figure in indie bookselling circles, both as an advocate for the industry and as a supporter of the First Amendment. A past American Booksellers Association president and the recipient of the ABA’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, she became more broadly known after filing two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Colorado laws that sought to restrict displaying books that may be harmful to minors. Later, Meskis won a two-year fight to quash a police search warrant for the book-purchase records of a customer who was a suspected drug dealer, resulting in a unanimous decision from the Colorado Supreme Court. “People still come up to me and say thanks” about her efforts to support the freedom to read, Meskis told PW in 2015.
“We booksellers are gatekeepers of the expression of ideas,” Meskis told members of the American Booksellers Association in 1991 when she was president of ABA. She added: “It is my view that as booksellers we have our own version of the Hippocratic oath to maintain the health and well being of the First Amendment…. That, in fact, it is our most honorable charge to provide books of all kinds, even those with which we may personally disagree, find distasteful, even abhor.”
The store's website was even more emphatic, stating: "We maintain that it is our responsibility to actively resist censorship that limits your right as our customers to make those choices for yourselves.”
In 1995, Meskis received the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, which included a check for $25,000, money she used to establish the Colorado Freedom of Expression Foundation.
Her legacy lives on in both the store and at the University of Denver's Publishing Institute, where she lectured for decades and served as director. The Denver Post wrote of Meskis’s passing: “When future historians look back at the later 20th century and early 21st century, one of the most important people in [Denver’s] history will be Joyce Meskis.” Dedications flooded onto the Facebook page of Tattered Cover bookstore. "Joyce was a literary lioness that evolved our industry in a way that few others had done before her. She was also a friend and mentor to so many at Tattered Cover and around the globe," the bookstore posted in a statement on that page.
As a bookseller, Meskis was quick to embrace emerging technology, and as a result, Tattered Cover became one of the first stores in the U.S. to implement a computerized inventory system—Meskis painted the early computers brown to blend in with the decor—and a retail website. The store even experimented with printing its own books and installed an Espresso Book Machine for a time. Still, her true love was the printed word.
“People may love their technologies, but ink on paper between boards is part of the pleasure of reading,” Meskis said. “Bookshops are the focal point in a community where reader and writer come together. It's important that publishers continue to recognize and acknowledge that.”
In 2009, Meskis described the rewards of bookselling as twofold. “There is an incredible bubble that rises in me when I hear a customer, especially if it's a child, say, 'Oh, wow, you've got that book.' It's exquisitely gratifying,” she said. Philosophically, she added, it's the social profit that makes up for the struggle to make a financial profit. “Being there for the community of readers that you serve and doing the very best that you can do to encourage and enhance the reading lives of the people in your community is how we can contribute to making a better world."
Upon news of her death, the National Coalition Against Censorship offered a this summary of Meskis's activism, including:
- In 1981, when her store was still small, she was a plaintiff in two cases that eventually reached the Colorado Supreme Court, which struck down a state law banning the display of material “harmful” to children and established that the Colorado Constitution provides broader protection for speech with sexual content than the First Amendment.
- In response to growing censorship pressure in the 1980s, she urged ABA to provide additional support for anti-censorship groups and later led an ABA task force that created the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.
- In 1989, Tattered Cover joined other Colorado bookstores in publishing a newspaper ad pledging to continue to sell Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which had become the target of terrorist violence, including the bombing of a California bookstore. Tattered Cover donated all profits from the sale of the book to anti-censorship groups.
- In 1991, as ABA president, Meskis testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, which authorized the victims of sexual attacks to sue booksellers and other producers and distributors of books and other media that “caused” the attacks. Meskis also helped persuade a Republican senator from Colorado to break with his party and oppose the bill, contributing to its defeat.
- In 1994, Meskis led the successful fight against a ballot initiative that would have amended the Colorado Constitution, giving the state legislature the power to expand the range of sexual speech that could be banned. It was rejected by 63 percent of the voters.
- In 2000, five police officers from a neighboring town arrived at Tattered Cover with a search warrant and demanded immediate access to the book purchase records of a customer suspected of making methamphetamine. (They wanted to link the suspect to a book about making meth that was found in his home and hoped they could show that it was sent to him by Tattered Cover in an envelope that was also found at the scene.) A two-year battle ensued, ending in the Colorado Supreme Court where the justices were unanimous. They ruled not only that the search warrant was invalid, but that any effort to obtain bookstore records without a hearing was unconstitutional.