Tattered Cover, the Denver literary icon that Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan bought five years ago from Joyce Meskis continues to come under fire for a statement the owners posted on the store’s website on Saturday. In it, the couple disclosed that while they sympathize with the Black Lives Movement, the bookstore would remain neutral in the current protests against racial injustice. They cited the store's “nearly 50-year policy of not engaging in public debate,” stating that to do so now “would be anathema to a different principle that we also hold dear, and one that is central, we believe, to the role of an independent bookstore: a place where access to ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, can happen in an uninhibited way.” The couple backtracked within days due to a deluge of criticism on social media, as well several staff resignations and at least two virtual author event cancellations (the store remains closed to foot traffic).
Although the co-owners offered a public apology to customers and staff on Monday, acknowledging that a “policy of non-engagement is wrong-headed” and promised that, moving forward, they would “use Tattered Cover's voice as a force for good and positive change,” many members of Colorado's literary world remain concerned regarding the relationship between Tattered Cover and the BIPOC community in the Greater Denver metro area. The store has four outlets, three in Denver and one in Littleton; there are also several Tattered Cover-branded outlets at the Denver International Airport.
A “Community Letter to the Owners of Tattered Cover Bookstore" was posted online yesterday afternoon, signed by a growing number of individuals, including Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre. Several of the co-signers are affiliated with at least one of more than a half-dozen Colorado literary organizations. Other signers include agent Kristin Nelson and four of her colleagues at the Nelson Literary Agency and Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Bookstore in Washington, D.C.
Describing Tattered Cover as more than simply a place where one can buy books, but as an influential hub of literary activity throughout the region, the open letter demands that Vlahos and Gilligan do more than simply issue a public apology, but also take immediate action in support of the BIPOC community. The letter makes 10 demands, including that Tattered Cover commit to hiring and retaining more employees from marginalized backgrounds; that it commit to making the work environment safe for all employees; that it commit to stocking more multicultural books and hosting more multicultural authors; and that it donate 10% of its paid promotional space (i.e. endcaps, standing displays) to highlight black authors and authors from other marginalized backgrounds.
The letter concludes with a demand for a response from Tattered Cover with a “clear articulation of its plans” within 30 days. “Until that response is received," the letter warned, “the undersigned individuals and organizations will not pursue purchases or partnerships with Tattered Cover."
“It is important to understand that for members of BIPOC communities,” stated Viniyanka Prasad, the executive director of Denver-based The Word, Storytelling Sanctuary, the lead organizer in this initiative, “This served as a breaking point, not as a first or isolated mistake. This response is meant to be an opportunity for connecting with a community that has long felt disregarded by Tattered. It is very much meant to be an opportunity to move forward together. It is also important that this conversation occur publicly and with input from the community at large. The only way forward is through openness and accountability.”
The Word’s board chair is Bummi Ishola, a Chicago-based editor with Kidsbooks, is a graduate of the Denver Publishing Institute. She noted in an email, “It’s hard to sit by and be silent when you see a pillar in the community dehumanize and devalue the existence of an entire group of people. Tattered Cover and its owners have a lot of influence in the book world, and so we are simply asking them to become better allies and create a safe space for the Black community in Denver and beyond."
PW was unable to obtain comment from Tattered Cover representatives by press time.
Bummi Ishola's professional credentials and connection to Denver's literary community were added to this story.