Denver is “a real boomtown right now,” says Len Vlahos, who with his wife, Kristen Gilligan, is the new owner of Tattered Cover Book Store, which has four branches in the greater Denver metropolitan area and three at Denver International Airport. He says the city’s robust employment opportunities, skyrocketing real estate prices, and influx of younger residents help account for growing sales at his store. That boom is evident across Colorado.
In 2014, Colorado had the fifth fastest-growing state economy in the nation, according to a report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, up from sixth fastest in 2013. Offering jobs in the tech sector and marijuana industry—pot was legalized in Colorado in 2012—the state has also seen a large population increase and low unemployment. Colorado gets an additional boost from tourism. In 2014, it had a record 71.3 million visitors, who spent $18.6 billion.
Bookselling in Colorado reflects the state’s healthy economy. The Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association has seen its Colorado membership increase by 10 stores to 49 over the past five years. Some of the newer stores are mixing books and brew. Nicole Sullivan opened the BookBar, a combination bookstore and wine bar, in Denver’s Tennyson Street arts district in 2013. She says sales have increased 20% each year and the numbers “just keep climbing.” Over the summer Sullivan expanded the store to make more space for kids’ books and added a room that can be turned into a private book club meeting space. In the fall, she opened BookBed, a book-themed apartment rental above the store where visiting authors and others can stay. Her neighborhood has grown increasingly popular. A second bookstore, Second Star to the Right, is a children’s specialty store that offers tutoring, opened across the street from BookBar in 2014.
Also in 2014, father and son Kevin and Ben Gillies opened City Stacks Books & Coffee in the LoDo (or Lower Downtown) section of Denver. “If we tried to do it today, we’d be scrambling to find a place,” Kevin Gillies says. “I think we’re quite lucky to have found a spot when we did.” Being located only three blocks from Tattered Cover’s LoDo store hasn’t been a problem. That’s because the stores attract different shoppers. “Our store is a little less than 2,000 square feet, which is part of our marketplace analysis,” Gillies says. “You have to be Amazon, Costco, or us. We see the middle ground as a difficult place to maintain.”
A longer-running shop, the Bookies, opened in the Glendale section of Denver in the 1970s—just about the same time as Tattered Cover. Sales floor manager Larry Yoder says the store has benefited from an increased emphasis on shopping locally, adding, “They’re coming here to keep the Bookies here.”
Colorado has a deep commitment to shopping locally. The American Independent Business Alliance, begun in response to the growth of chain retailers, was rooted in an organization formed by two Colorado residents in 1997, David Bolduc, owner of Boulder Book Store, and Jeff Milchen, now co-director of AMIBA.
It takes more than shopping locally, though, to keep stores in popular tourist areas open. The 25-year-old Off the Beaten Path bookstore in Steamboat Springs, a skiing destination and ranching center, has a coffee bar and serves beer and wine. Owner Ron Krall says his store is “very dependent” on tourism in a community with a small year-round population. “Without it, we couldn’t survive,” he says. “Half of our business depends on that tourist economy.”
Off the Beaten Path has been especially challenged by consumers’ opting for the convenience of e-tail. “We are the only remaining bookstore in Steamboat Springs,” Krall says. “We feel the pinch of Amazon because, as a very small community of 12,000 people, many people have to shop on Amazon for lots of general goods that simply aren’t available in our town.”
At Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, which is located in the San Juan Mountains in the state’s southwest, online shopping is less of an issue. “People used to say that they would get books online, but now we’re a novelty,” owner Andrea Avantaggio says, adding that sales have been up for all but two of the past 12 months. “[Visitors] come from big cities where they don’t have an independent bookstore, and they leave with a big stack of books.”
Unlike many stores elsewhere that might rely on events with big-name authors for sales, Maria’s is in a fly-over region for national tours. So it hosts more events with local authors. “Quite honestly some of our biggest flops have been celebrity authors,” Avantaggio says. “It turns out people just don’t care. They’d rather go mountain biking.”
In Colorado, booksellers count on both winter spots and summertime activities to draw tourists. “Obviously December is important and big, but it’s not the sole determinant whether we have a good year,” says Arsen Kashkashian, inventory manager at the Boulder Book Store. “The year can be made or broken in the summer.” Too much snow can also be a hindrance, as it was over Thanksgiving weekend, when a winter storm pushed sales at the store down 15%. “Had the weather been good, we would have been even or up,” Kashkashian adds.
Kelsey Myers, events coordinator at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, says weather “can make a huge difference” from one day to the next. “If it snows the day we have an event booked, it can really kill attendance,” she says. “It affects us on a bigger scale with the natural disasters that have been going on in the past few years, with a ton of wildfires followed the next year by a lot of flooding. That’s been challenging for tourists and the community as a whole.”
Despite the challenges, sales were strong for many Colorado stores last year. At Old Firehouse, which remodeled and expanded in August, opening a kids’ room, sales were up 20% in both October and November. “December is always the best month for us,” Myers says. Although it’s too early for final figures, she adds that December was “the icing on the cake.”