Former Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis, who died December 22 at age 80, is being remembered not only as a pioneer in bookselling circles but as a staunch supporter of the First Amendment. Meskis purchased the Denver bookstore in 1974 and ran it for more than four decades, growing it from a single 950-sq.-ft. shop into one of the nation’s largest and most recognizable independents. At its height, Tattered Cover had four locations in the Denver metro area, and three more at Denver airports in partnership with Hudson Booksellers. The store remains in operation today under the leadership of Kwame Spearman.
The Denver Post wrote of Meskis’s death: “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 Tattered Cover Facebook page. “Joyce was a literary lioness that evolved our industry in a way that few others had done before her,” the bookstore posted in a statement on that page. “She was also a friend and mentor to so many at Tattered Cover and around the globe.”
Tattered Cover investor and former ABA CEO Oren Teicher first met Meskis in the late 1980s. “She had a profound influence on everything I did for the next 35-plus years,” Teicher said. Though she deserves attention for her commitment to free speech, “at heart she was a bookseller,” he added. “She helped invent the modern indie bookstore, and led the way in establishing the best customer service while treating every employee with dignity and respect.”
Teicher noted that Meskis’s commitment to free speech was tied to her role as a bookseller. “She was unalterably convinced that bookstores had a big role to play in defending the First Amendment,” he explained, adding that Meskis believed it is up to customers to decide what content they want to read, and that it is bookstores’ role to provide access without passing judgment. “That approach was highly controversial, but she never ever wavered or backed down. She advocated her views in a quiet and respectful manner, always listening to those who disagreed with her. She set a standard for integrity that was unmatched.”
In her fight for freedom of expression, Meskis often worked in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship, which issued a statement saying it was saddened by news of her death. NCAC also offered a summary of Meskis’s activism, including the following achievements:
In 1981, she was a plaintiff in two cases that reached the Colorado Supreme Court, which struck down a state law banning the display of material deemed “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 pledging to continue to sell Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, after the author became the target of terrorist violence.
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.
In 2000, police officers from a neighboring town arrived at Tattered Cover with a search warrant and demanded information on the book purchases of a customer suspected of making methamphetamine. A two-year battle ensued, ending at the Colorado Supreme Court, whose justices ruled unanimously that the search warrant was invalid and that any effort to obtain bookstore records without a hearing is unconstitutional.
During her career, Meskis won numerous awards, including the 1995 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. She was also the recipient of the ABA’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
As a bookseller, Meskis was quick to embrace emerging technologies, and as a result, Tattered Cover became one of the first stores in the U.S. to implement a computerized inventory system and a retail website. 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.”
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, the social profit 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.”
With Meskis’s passing, Teicher observed, “the Tattered Cover and the larger Denver community—let alone the entire book industry—have lost a giant.”