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Clara Villarosa. Photo courtesy of Dream, Girl Film
Culture

Tattered Cover Partners With Hue-Man Experience Founder to Create a Home for Black Literature in Denver

Tattered Cover’s new CEO Kwame Spearman will work with literary icon and founder of Hue-Man Experience Clara Villarosa to launch a consulting initiative within the indie bookstore.

While its future faced many obstacles in 2020, the Tattered Cover Bookstore—which is under new ownership after it was sold in December—is working to reinvigorate its image with an initiative that resurrects a piece of Denver’s past.

The independent bookstore is partnering with Hue-Man Experience, a beloved Denver bookstore that devoted its inventory and mission to Black artists from 1984 to 2000. Tattered Cover’s new CEO Kwame Spearman will join forces with Hue-Man’s former owner, Clara Villarosa, to steer a new consulting division within the bookstore, called Hue-Man Experience at Tattered Cover. Under Villarosa’s guidance, the business will focus on diversity in literature—curating Black-centric book recommendations and curriculums for schools, corporations, and nonprofits throughout the Mile High City.

The partnership comes at a socially charged time—just eight months ago, more than 1,200 people signed an open letter to Tattered Cover in response to the bookstore’s published position of neutrality during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. In the letter, the signees demanded the business “take immediate actions necessary to its responsible participation in our community.”

After the public criticism, Tattered Cover’s former owners Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan issued an apology: “We deserve your outrage and disappointment. Tattered Cover will no longer stand by while human rights are being violated. To be silent is to be complicit, to be neutral in the face of injustice is an act of injustice itself.”

Tattered Cover CEO Kwame Spearman. Photo by Yumi Matsuo

Despite the change of heart, the bookstore lost loyal customers, and in a year of shutdowns and economic turmoil, the owners decided it was time to hand over the keys. “The difficult sales environment has not kept pace with the business’s mounting debt. We saw this coming a long way off,” Vlahos wrote in a letter announcing the company’s sale in December.

Later that month, those keys were placed in the hands of Spearman and co-investor David Back, who together formed a limited liability company, Bended Page, with a total of 13 investors. Among them was Oren Teicher, a retired CEO of the American Booksellers Association. Shortly after the sale was finalized, Teicher claimed in an email to Publisher’s Weekly that Spearman, a 37-year-old Black man, would make Tattered Cover “the largest Black-owned [book]store in the U.S.”

This claim, however, was not met with resounding cheers. In fact, some argued that it was a hijacking marketing tactic and misleading, given that—despite Spearman being the CEO and the largest individual shareholder—he would be the only Black person in the 13-person investment group, and Tattered Cover did not appear poised to dramatically shift its position on race. Several Black booksellers across the country expressed their disappointment in the announcement, with some going so far as to say they were “taken aback” and “hurt” by the “slap in the face.”

In an interview with 5280, Spearman expressed his understanding of customers’ distrust. “I’ve said numerous times, I didn’t agree with the [neutrality] statement,” he explains. “I’m a fierce supporter of Black Lives Matter. But all I can do now is lead the business the way that I see fit, and I think if you have the two principles of always being on the right side of history, and being a community-led institution [rather than strictly a business], I think you’re gonna get two right answers.”

It’s hard to argue that bringing Villarosa on board isn’t a right answer. Villarosa, now 90, is both a local and national icon, having founded Hue-Man Experience back in 1984. Raised in Chicago, as an adult she moved her family to Denver where she worked in social work, human relations, and banking before opening the Hue-Man Experience. In 2000, she sold the shop in Denver and moved Hue-Man to Harlem, where Maya Angelou notably read at the store’s grand opening. There, Villarosa launched the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe, which would go on to become arguably one of the most successful Black-owned bookstores in the country. By the time its co-owner and CEO Marva Allen closed the shop in 2012, it was a Harlem staple.

Villarosa at Hue-Man Experience in Harlem. Courtesy of Hue-Man Experence

The Denver location “was a labor of love,” she says during an interview with 5280. “This was a two-story row house on Champa. And it was wonderful.” She remembers, in particular, a little boy running into the store and telling his mother, breathless, “They look like me here.” The experience exemplified everything Villarosa was trying to accomplish.

So when Spearman called Villarosa to ask for help, something about him reminded her of that little boy.

The partnership “was actually my mom’s idea,” Spearman says, laughing. It was Christmas Eve in 2020, only days after the acquisition, and his mom had dragged out a pile of old holiday cards with a Black Santa Claus on them—cards they’d bought at the Hue-Man Experience years ago. Spearman, who was raised in Denver, regularly visited the Hue-Man Experience, and after he became CEO, Spearman’s mother suggested he reach out to Villarosa.

“One of the things I saw in 2020, people were searching for more diverse titles and content and authors. But the number one question we were getting is, where do I look?” Spearman says. He wanted to develop a new canon on Black literature for parents, teachers, and employees. And he couldn’t imagine “anyone on the planet” better to help him than Villarosa.

When Spearman called her, “I listened,” Villarosa says. “And what I heard was pleasant. Very pleasant to my ears. Here was somebody reaching out to me, asking something that I knew about and could help.”

Now, Villarosa will have editorial authority over the Hue-Man Experience at Tattered Cover. Anytime an entity or organization reaches out, Villarosa will curate the relevant curriculum. For example, if Denver Public Schools (DPS) reached out to the bookstore, Villarosa would ask DPS what topics they’d like to cover with their high-schoolers, and respond with a list of recommendations: perhaps Born a Crime by Trevor Noah; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; or Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson.

“We want to develop a center of excellence, where we have our ear to the ground on every piece of content, every title, focused around Black literature,” Spearman says.

While the announcement presents a welcomed shift for Denver’s foremost independent bookstore, the question remains if customers are as willing to listen as Villarosa was.

In a December story by the Denver Post, City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca voiced the need to hold the bookstore—including Spearman—accountable. “There’s always the potential this is about exploiting this moment in time for profit, and that the Black-owned statement never actually affects the Black community,” she said. “The best part of it is that we get to hold him accountable through our patronage. If he speaks to us, the Tattered Cover will again be a community treasure. If not, he’s going to face the same challenges the previous owners faced.”

Whether Tattered Cover can reestablish its position as a community treasure remains to be seen. But if Spearman’s partnership with Villarosa signals anything, it’s that he’s willing to call upon the larger Denver literary community to repair the harms that were done—and he’s hoping that customers will see that as a step in the right direction.

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