As a student at Purdue, Joyce Meskis envisioned her future as that of a college English professor. “In my mind's eye, I saw myself kicking the fall leaves on a campus as I walked to my nice but not ostentatious house, where French doors would be open and I could hear the strains of Chopin being played by my children,” she says. But a stint at the college bookstores changed her course, and today Meskis is known to all as owner of Denver's esteemed Tattered Cover Book Store and one of the most outspoken free speech advocates in bookselling. Meskis added to her bookselling career in January 2008 when she was named to succeed Elizabeth Geiser as the director of the University of Denver's summer Publishing Institute.
The institute was founded by Geiser in 1976, just two years after Meskis purchased Tattered Cover, and the two institutions have grown side by side. The institute has graduated nearly 3,000 students, while Tattered Cover has grown from a single location of 950 square feet to three locations. Her store's growth over the past three decades—and the very fact of its survival—is something she credits to the growth of Denver rather than to any particular ambition of her own. “There's a misperception about Denver that it's a community steeped in a western tradition, if you will,” she says, “but people were attracted to the city. They came here, had families—it became a magnet for well-educated people all over the country. It's no different than in a place like Portland, which grew Powell's, for example.”
Over her 35-year career, Meskis's success as a bookseller has sometimes been overshadowed by the store's well-documented legal battles in defense of First Amendment rights. Her line in this regard is well rehearsed: “Trouble finds us, we don't go looking for it,” she says. “When you're in a general community, you will always have challenges. There are things I didn't expect. I didn't expect so many court battles. You've got to do what you've got to do.”
Meskis describes the rewards of bookselling as two-fold. Empirically, she says, “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.” Philosophically, she says, it's the social profit that 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,” Meskis says.
She sees publishing as serving much the same function, and it's a message she's been delivering to students at the University of Denver's Publishing Institute for nearly 20 years, where she has been a regular lecturer on bookselling. Now, as director, she has the opportunity to instill this philosophy even deeper into the program.
While it might seem like a tough time to be steward of a program that promises to train students for jobs in an industry that has seen so much bloodletting in recent months, the facts prove otherwise. In 2008, 96 students graduated from the four-week program, and this year the number of applicants is up. “The applicants we're getting are even better than last year,” Meskis adds, “and many of them are stating in the applications that while they recognize there are changes in the industry, they continue to love the idea of publishing and reading and doing something worthwhile.”
Meskis's has enticed an A-list of some 50 publishing people to lecture this summer, and Harper Studio's Bob Miller will give the keynote and Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, will give the graduation speech. “I see the students as being able to participate as agents of change, people who will be able to make publishing work best for the community that they choose to serve,” Meskis says.
Though a full-time university career may have been seductive in her youth, Meskis still plans to devote the bulk of her time and attention to her bookstores. “It's extremely gratifying work,” she says.
“People may love their technologies, but ink on paper between boards is part of the pleasure of reading,” says Meskis. “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.”