The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, one of the country’s most iconic bookstores, is changing ownership. Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, the couple who bought the Tattered Cover five years ago from Joyce Meskis, have sold the store—which consists of four locations in and around Denver and a fifth planned in Westminster, Colo.—to Kwame Spearman and David Back, described in a release as “Denver natives, high school rivals, and long-time friends.”
The change in ownership was completed on Tuesday; Vlahos and Gilligan will stay on for a period of time as consultants. Spearman and Back have formed a limited liability company, Bended Page, with “a diverse group of Colorado-based investors and national bookselling and publishing experts” on board. The thirteen investors include Oren Teicher, the retired CEO of the American Booksellers Association and John Sargent, departing Macmillan CEO. Teicher and Sargent are among a seven-member board of directors, headed by Back, its chair, and Spearman, installed as the store's CEO.
A diverse advisory board has also been formed, with 30 members, ranging from corporate executives to several book world notables, -- including Mitch Kaplan of Books & Books in Miami -- to a representative of Denver's Cherry Creek School District, all tasked with providing their expertise to the store's new owners as needed.
In an open letter posted on the bookstore's website Wednesday morning, Vlahos explained the rationale for the sale. "The impact of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic made it clear that Tattered Cover was going to need not only new management, but an infusion of capital," he said. "The difficult sales environment has not kept pace with the business’s mounting debt. We saw this coming a long way off and have spent months doing all we can to ensure a bright future for the bookstores, even if our roles had to change. As Kristen and I thought about the next steps in our journey, it was of paramount importance to ensure that Tattered Cover be placed in the hands of an ownership team who values the power of this special place and what it means to the community."
The Tattered Cover was founded in 1971 in Denver's Cherry Creek neighborhood by Stephen Cogil. Meskis purchased it in 1974 and sold it to industry veterans Vlahos and Gilligan in 2015.
According to the release, Back’s first job at 15 was working as a cashier at Tattered Cover’s now-closed Cherry Creek location, and Spearman’s “favorite restaurant in high school” was the Fourth Story, which operated in the Cherry Creek outlet from 1995-2006.
After launching his professional career as a consultant at Bain & Company, Spearman, a graduate of both Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, has worked across numerous industries, with a focus on retail and consumer companies. He most recently served as head of expansion and landlord partnerships at Knotel, a flexible office provider for companies. Back, who holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, pursued an M.B.A. from Cambridge University’s Judge School of Business before dropping out to launch Zoomcar, the first rental car company in India.
While Back already lives in Denver, Spearman currently lives in New York City, but is moving back to his hometown.
In an email to PW, Teicher wrote: “I've been working with Kwame and David on this for several months, and could not be more thrilled that it's all come together.” Spearman and Back, he continued, “represent a critically important next chapter for indie bookselling; their energy, enthusiasm, and business expertise are extraordinary. Whatever challenges lie ahead, their decision to step up and buy the Tattered Cover gives me enormous confidence in the future of indie bookselling.” Teicher added that, with Spearman becoming the new co-owner of Tattered Cover, “it will become the largest Black-owned store in the U.S.”
Reimagining Tattered Cover
Vlahos, Back, and Spearman joined PW on a Zoom video conference call on Wednesday afternoon during which they discussed how the sale came about and the future of Tattered Cover, which is scheduled to move its flagship store from LoDo to the new McGregor Square commercial development opposite Coors Field, a trendy area about a half-mile from its current location.
When asked why he and Spearman would buy a bricks-and-mortar bookstore during a pandemic, Back responded that they didn't buy just any bookstore, they bought Tattered Cover - “in my mind, the greatest bookstore in the Western Hemisphere.” Disclosing that he’d entertained fantasies of owning Tattered Cover ever since he had worked there as a teenager, Back said that when he heard this past spring that Tattered Cover had furloughed most of its staff during the national lockdown, he feared for the impact upon Denver if Tattered Cover were to shut its doors for good. “Denver needs Tattered Cover, and Tattered Cover needs Denver,” he said.
Back recalls also thinking that if the pandemic forced Vlahos and Gilligan to sell the store, he “did not want to miss out on this opportunity” and reached out to Vlahos and then to Spearman.
Vlahos, recalling that the Tattered Cover’s Colfax Avenue store was closed for three months and the LoDo store for four months, said the couple “could see where this was going; the impact upon the business was going to be devastating,” noting that “Tattered Cover like many indies, was under-capitalized to begin with.”
Vlahos said that a controversy that arose this summer over the store's initially tepid response to the Black Lives Matter movement protests that took place across the country played any role in the couple's decision to sell the store. He described the incident as a "mis-step" that turned into "an opportunity to reevaluate the store's policies and our thinking on diversity, equity, and inclusion.We hired [a diversity consultant] and put out an action plan. We were very upfront with David and Kwame while it was going on."
“It became really clear,” Vlahos said of his first meetings with Back and Spearman, “These guys were really smart, really savvy entrepreneurs. Right away, they went to school on the book business. They shared with us what their vision for Tattered Cover would be. Some of it was not dissimilar to the vision that Kristen and I brought to it five and one-half years ago, but we were always under-capitalized, and frankly, I do not know that we have the business savvy that these guys do to pull it off. By June, we were so enamored of David and Kwame and their vision that we thought if we can make this work, this is a colossal win for Tattered Cover and for Denver.” Vlahos will continue to work full-time at Tattered Cover until June 2021 to ease the transition.
Spearman explained that he and Back strategized on how to move forward into the future by studying “other really successful indie bookstores all across the country: going into non-book items, thinking critically about inventory mix, becoming a community focused environment, and really evangelizing ‘shop local.’ Retail in general has got to evolve to continue to survive in the world we live in today.”
Spearman emphasized that modern retail must provide curation and creating “an experiential environment where people want to go to.” Spearman said that he and Back are merely providing the capital needed to expand upon the retail strategy already in place at Tattered Cover.
“We will be successful if everyone in our community, and by that, I mean Colorado," Back added, “feels comfortable in our stores, and that they can find the perfect piece of literature there. That’s our North Star."
“These guys have now a six month window before life gets back to normal to stabilize the business, so that when the pandemic ends, Tattered Cover is so well-positioned to really serve the people of Denver in an incredible way. The timing is actually the right time,” Vlahos said.
This story has been updated with new information.