Joyce Meskis: Her Tattered Cover Bookstore Became a Destination for Book Lovers

From a Washington Post obit by Michael S. Rosenwald headlined “Joyce Meskis, whose Tattered Cover became a destination for book lovers, dies at 80”:

Joyce Meskis, who as a single mother in 1974 bought the struggling Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver and transformed it into one of the nation’s most successful literary emporiums with a cozy living-room vibe later emulated by other independent bookstores, died at her home in Denver.

Almost like a short story that swells into a doorstopper-size novel, Ms. Meskis grew the 950-foot square shop in Denver that she bought for less than $30,000 into a behemoth with several hundred employees and annual revenue estimated at more than $20 million.

At the height of her success in the 1980s and ’90s, the Tattered Cover’s flagship store occupied four floors in an old Denver department store — a literary mecca of more than 400,000 titles that became one of the city’s most visited tourist attractions.

“It is simply one of the great bookstores of the Western world,” Jason Epstein, then the editorial director of Random House, said in 1989.

While bookstores such as the Strand in New York and City Lights in San Francisco were hallowed grounds for readers, Ms. Meskis created something different. With comfy armchairs and lamps, and sections squared off to feel like cozy reading nooks, Ms. Meskis tried “to project an image of a well-worn, well-made carpet slipper,” she said in 1990. “We’re after an at-home atmosphere.”

Ms. Meskis carefully plotted every detail, from the lush green carpet to dark-brown stained shelves that made the books — and their colorful covers — stand out visually, according to Mark A. Barnhouse, a former employee and author of “Tattered Cover Book Store: A Storied History.”

“When computerization became inevitable, after originally relying on thousands of index cards to track inventory, she had CRT monitors and keyboards painted dark brown,” Barnhouse wrote. “This might have invalidated their warranty, but it made them less visually prominent, which was paramount.”

Oren Teicher, a close friend and former chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, said that Ms. Meskis “really helped invent this model that we all kind of take for granted now.”

“Every bookstore now wants to be a place that encourages browsing, that encourages you to hang out, but it wasn’t always like that,” Teicher said. “If you were a book lover, it was kind of like arriving in heaven.”

As Waldenbooks and other impersonal chain stores opened in malls around the Denver area, the Tattered Cover offered personal service from well-read employees fiercely loyal to books and Ms. Meskis. She trained booksellers to listen closely to customers, personally walk them to shelves and never show any sign they were judging reading tastes.

Though scores of bookstores were eventually wiped out by Barnes & Noble, Borders and then Amazon, the atmosphere and service offered by Ms. Meskis and other independents — especially those in high foot-traffic areas such as Politics and Prose in Washington — helped them survive the onslaught of competition.

“The intrinsic worth of the bricks-and-mortar store is that it can bring all of the options to the customer in a way that gives them an extraordinary total experience,” Ms. Meskis said in 2017. “In other words, reading a book is not only a cerebral experience. It’s also tactile. And you want to be in a place where you can enjoy all of the artistic endeavors that a book offers to the reader — the feel of it, the smell of it, the content.”

Customers were so devoted to the Tattered Cover that when Ms. Meskis moved or expanded to other locations, hundreds volunteered to lug heavy boxes of books. She further endeared herself to readers in 2000 after fighting a search warrant from local authorities seeking the purchase history of a drug dealing suspect. The case went to the Colorado Supreme Court, which sided with Ms. Meskis.

“More than customer privacy was at stake in the case,” the Denver Post said in editorial. “The First Amendment right to free press and the right to read were also at risk.”

Joyce Meskis was born in Lansing, Ill., and grew up in Calumet City and on the South Side of Chicago. Her father, a Lithuanian immigrant, drove a truck for Dolly Madison Bakery, and he instilled in her the importance of buying from local businesses.

“I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood where you had your little grocery store and your bar on the corner,” Ms. Meskis said in 1995. “And you had your little book shop and local library down the block. Retail was different then. The first change we saw was the supermarket phenomenon, which forced many shops out of business.”

Ms. Meskis was a voracious reader growing up. At Purdue University, she initially majored in math, Barnhouse wrote, but “after switching her major to English and working in the library and college bookstore, she realized her true passion was books.” She married another Purdue student, and they moved to the Denver area in the early 1960s. After divorcing, Ms. Meskis worked in local bookstores.

In 1974, she bought the struggling Tattered Cover. As her success grew, so did the store. Ms. Meskis rented additional portions of the building every time a spot became available.

After seven expansions, there still wasn’t enough space for her ambition, so she took over a four-story department store in the city in 1986. More locations followed. Ms. Meskis became a mentor to other booksellers and an ambassador for the industry.

In 2015, she announced that she was retiring and selling the store, saying that her two daughters had pursued other careers so they couldn’t take it over.

Just before she retired, the Denver Post asked Ms. Meskis to reflect on her decades running the store. She recalled the time a mother came into the store with her young son. He saw a book he recognized on a shelf and could hardly contain himself.

“It’s my favorite book!” he yelled.

Asked what she would miss most, Ms. Meskis said, “The readers.”

Michael Rosenwald is an enterprise reporter writing about history, the social sciences, and culture. He also hosts Retropod, a daily podcast. Before joining The Post in 2004, he was a reporter at The Boston Globe.

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