After 41 years at the helm of the iconic Tattered Cover Bookstore, this month owner Joyce Meskis begins the two-year process of handing off ownership to a husband-and-wife team from New York City. We sat down with the Illinois native to find out what brought her to the book business, which authors still steal her heart, and why a pair of Big Apple book lovers make the perfect new owners for Denver’s signature independent bookstore.
Owning a bookstore is a romantic idea. Was this a career path you set out on, or was it a career based on opportunity?
I went to college at Purdue expecting to be a math teacher or an English literature professor. I worked my way through school at the college bookstore. I went on to graduate school at the University of Denver, still working in libraries and bookstores, until I woke up one morning and said to myself, Wake up, you idiot. Don’t you realize you’ve been doing what you love all these years? I dropped out of graduate school, and the rest is history.
How did you end up buying the then three-year-old Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek?
By 1974, I was a single mom of two young daughters. I was reading the book pages of the Sunday Denver Post and saw that the Tattered Cover had come up for sale. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, thought I could make it work, and made an offer. There was a better offer on the table, and I didn’t hear back. My friend pushed me to inquire, and I found out the deal had fallen through. I borrowed the last few thousand dollars from my uncle, made another offer, and it was accepted.
You added a LoDo satellite store in 1994 after seven expansions within the original Cherry Creek store and a second Cherry Creek location. Why LoDo?
I had a love affair with downtown. It was very different. I would walk 16th Street and see what leases were available. When we got close to the end of our lease in Cherry Creek, the pricing downtown was low, and there was a ton of commercial space. LoDo had more pigeon occupants than people occupants at the time. I thought if Tattered Cover was ever going to move downtown, this was the time.
You’ve been selling books for more than 40 years. Give us a few of your favorite reads.
I’ve avoided that question for 30 years. I’m not going to start answering it now.
OK, how about some of your favorite authors?
The readings from my college days still resonate, among them Willa Cather, Upton Sinclair, and Thomas Hardy. If I’m reading about freedom of the press, speech, and thought, it’s John Milton’s Areopagitica. I’ll read Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (pseudonym of Edward Everett Tanner III) for fun.
Starting this month, you’re beginning the two-year process of passing ownership of Tattered Cover to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, two book-industry professionals from New York. Why them?
I wanted it to be left to the right people. They are perfect for the Tattered Cover. These people are committed to the industry: Both have spent their careers in the book business and understand community. They know the blessings and curses. Often people have a dreamy feeling about owning a bookstore, and they don’t realize how hard it is. You can practically do anything else instead of buying a bookstore and make more money with a lot less worry.