This July, Joyce Meskis began a two-year process of turning over the reins of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver to married industry veterans Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan. In January, Meskis also retired as director of the University of Denver Publishing Institute, a position she had held since 2008. Both actions were spurred in part by the fact that the 73-year-old rock star of booksellers was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Under Meskis’s 41-year-stewardship, the Tattered Cover grew from a 950-sq.-ft. bookstore into one of the nation’s most recognizable independents—with four locations in the Denver metro area, as well as three stores at Denver International Airport that are operated in partnership with Hudson Booksellers. Not only did Meskis, a past American Booksellers Association president and recipient of the ABA’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, grow the Tattered Cover brand, but she did so during a period that saw the rise of chain superstores, which were rumored to have modeled their size and breadth of inventory on her store. She also faced down competition from big-box discounters, and more recently from online retailers.
For Meskis, customer service is central to the store’s success. “We work hard at it,” she said. “We are continually looking for new ways to entice people into reading habits. Our focus, no matter the size of our store, has been to do our best to present the world of publishing, to always find ways to bring to the attention of readers one more book, one more idea to dip into.” That philosophy led Meskis to schedule author events long before they became mainstays at other bookstores. “That’s been key, to bring the writer and the reader together,” she explains. “There’s nothing like being in the presence of an author to be able to communicate ideas.”
Customer service also led the Tattered Cover to become an early adopter of technology. It was among the first bookstores to move to a computerized inventory system—Meskis painted the early computers brown to blend in with the decor—and a retail website. Four years ago, the bookstore added an Espresso Book Machine.
Meskis’s concern for customers also led to bookstores becoming synonymous with the freedom to read. “We don’t look for trouble; it finds us,” is Meskis’s standard response when asked how she and the Tattered Cover have become so prominent in First Amendment battles. She has been a plaintiff in two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Colorado laws that sought to restrict displaying books that may be harmful to minors, but she is perhaps best known for going to court to quash a search warrant for the book-purchase records of a customer who was a suspected drug dealer. She won a unanimous decision in the Colorado Supreme Court. “People still come up to me and say thanks” about her efforts to support the freedom to read, Meskis says.