Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore Is Focused On Succession, Not Just Survival Known for its vast selection and knowledgeable sales staff, it's a Denver institution. Now, after 40 years, the store's longtime owner is making preparations to pass the reins to a new generation.

Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore Is Focused On Succession, Not Just Survival

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/437473687/438797724" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, let's talk about one of the institutions that bring a city alive. It's a distinctive local bookstore. Denver is famous for its store, the Tattered Cover, and the longtime owner is preparing to retire. She's selling the store to two new owners. NPR's Scott Horsley worked at the Tattered Cover as a high school student before covering the White House for us, so we sent Scott back.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Some things at the Tattered Cover have not changed, like the comfy chairs that occupy the many nooks and crannies tucked amongst the shelves. Robert Norris is parked in one of those chairs, surrounded by a collection of business books. Norris drops by the Tattered Cover every other day or so for an author signing, a music recital or just to spend some time with a good book.

ROBERT NORRIS: You can sit and read, and the people are friendly - very friendly and helpful. I just like the atmosphere myself.

HORSLEY: That homey atmosphere is a personal reflection of Joyce Meskis. She's owned the Tattered Cover for more than 40 years and says she tried to design a store she'd like to shop in.

JOYCE MESKIS: Yes, I was there to buy a book when I walked into a bookstore, but I also wanted to be comfortable. I wanted service sometimes. Sometimes I just wanted to be by myself. It's nothing more than treating the customer as you would like to be treated.

HORSLEY: And Tattered Cover customers are fiercely loyal in return. Years ago, when the store moved across the street, hundreds of customers helped lug boxes of books - their only reward, a T-shirt, a sandwich and a strong sense of community. When I heard Meskis, who's 73, is getting set to retire, I decided to pay her a visit and meet the incoming owners. Len Vlahos and his wife, Kristin Gilligan, both spent years working for the American Booksellers Association, and naturally, they dreamed of owning their own store one day. Vlahos says they imagined buying the bookstore equivalent of a minor league baseball team, but taking over the Tattered Cover is like running the New York Yankees.

LEN VLAHOS: It is humbling. It is overwhelming. It is a big responsibility. Joyce is leaving shoes that we have no intent to try and fill because they can't be filled. We will walk in our own shoes but try and continue the legacy. And it could not be a better situation.

HORSLEY: Vlahos and Gilligan will have some time to get acclimated to their mile-high literary perch. They're serving a kind of extended apprenticeship under Meskis. The sale won't be finalized for two more years.

VLAHOS: It came about because we couldn't convince Joyce to stay for 20 years (laughter).

HORSLEY: This might seem like an inauspicious time to invest in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, given the competition from Amazon and e-books, but Gilligan notes membership in the Booksellers Association has actually grown in each of the last six years.

KRISTIN GILLIGAN: The death of the indie bookstores is truly greatly exaggerated. And, in fact, you're seeing a lot of succession.

HORSLEY: Other beloved bookstores around the country have also found new buyers, including Inkwood Books in Tampa, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. The Tattered Cover has weathered other changes over the years. I remember when Meskis introduced the first computers onto the sales floor. She insisted on painting them brown to blend in with the bookshelves. The store has also branched out to multiple locations, including a move to Denver's lower downtown in the 1990s that marked a very early step in that now bustling neighborhood's revitalization.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: On a Saturday afternoon, you could see tumbleweeds kind of blow down the street. It was so, so little traffic.

HORSLEY: John Hickenlooper owned a neighboring brew pub at the time. And for a while, he and Meskis owned a downtown building together. Hickenlooper, who's now the governor of Colorado, was so impressed with customer service at the bookstore he asked to sit in on the employee orientation.

HICKENLOOPER: Your training just to man a cash register is two weeks. And part of that - the first day for every employee - Joyce always does herself.

HORSLEY: I still remember the training I got from Meskis when I worked at the store as a high school kid in the 1980s. She told me the afterschool job would not be glamorous, and there wouldn't be much time for reading. There was a radio in the stock room, though, where I first heard a program called All Things Considered. And I got to share in the special satisfaction that Meskis has enjoyed for decades.

MESKIS: There's no question the bookseller plays an important role in putting books and ideas and people together. And every person who works here, whether it's in the shipping department, whether it's out on the sales floor, whether it's crunching numbers in the back room, they all play an important role in that exchange of ideas.

HORSLEY: The Tattered Cover's new owners are now getting acquainted with every one of those functions. Meskis says she's confident they'll find new ways of connecting readers with the books they love. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.