Tattered Cover Bookstore owner Joyce Meskis has kept Denverites reading for more than forty years—and fighting for our right to read whatever we choose
With three locations in the Denver metro area, one at Denver International Airport and a new one in Union Station, Tattered Cover Bookstore is widely regarded as one of the top independent booksellers in the country. Furnished with overstuffed chairs and sink-into sofas, the charming shops offer quiet places to curl up and read—in the company of more than 250,000 books.
The LoDo location, housed in the historic Morey Mercantile Building
Each year, Tattered Cover hosts over 400 readings and literary events. The notable quotables who have come to sign their books include Harry Potter’s creator J.K. Rowling, Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer, Caroline Kennedy, Garrison Keillor, astronaut John Glenn, soon-to-be-President Barack Obama and the futurist architect Buckminster Fuller who, even with a broken finger, signed books for a sell-out crowd.
Singer Judy Collins makes a new friend at one of TC's many book signings
The author of all this book magic is Joyce Meskis. She came to Colorado (from her native Illinois) in the 1970s and fell—“immediately and deeply”—in love with Denver. “I was thrilled with the unpretentious and welcoming atmosphere, the community spirit and especially that people here appreciate the arts and love their libraries,” she says.
Her first bookstore (in Cherry Creek North) measured only 950 square feet, crammed with books and punctuated by easy chairs that could have come straight from Grandma’s attic. Forty successful years later, two of her Tattered Cover shops anchor landmark buildings: the 1896 Morey Mercantile Building, with its high ceilings and creaking wood floors, is home to the LoDo store; and the Colfax location fills the historic Lowenstein Theater, one of Denver’s best examples of streamlined Art Moderne. That building stood empty for 19 years and was a likely candidate for demolition until Meskis refurbished the 66,000-square-foot space in 2005.
Meskis has been honored numerous times for her tireless defense of First Amendment Rights. “Let me say that I have appreciated every acknowledgement that I’ve been lucky enough to receive,” she says. However, receiving the William J. Brennan, Jr. Award for the Protection of Free Expression, given by the Thomas Jefferson Center in Washington, D.C., was a real high point. “The experience of being in the National Supreme Court Building with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and even the retired and quite elderly Justice Brennan, was just jaw-dropping for me,” she admits.
Asked how she got started advocating for the freedom of expression, Meskis quickly responds, “In our generation, with the ashes of World War II not yet gone cold, we have this horrific example of the Nazis burning books containing ideas they did not agree with; our democracy is based on debating ideas of all kinds,” she says. “And in order to have an informed and enlightened citizenry, people need the freedom to read.”
The newest Tattered Cover is slated for the freshly renovated Union Station, which Meskis describes as “one of Denver’s grandest historic structures.” It is an extension of Tattered Cover LoDo (a block away) and, at only 922 square feet, is about the size of Joyce Meskis’ very first Cherry Creek Store. “It seems like a very nice symmetry,” Meskis notes; a fitting career bookend for a maverick who still believes that something magical can happen between a reader and a great book.
What is your idea of style?
I’m thinking of a cozy living room full of books and furniture from Grandma’s attic—like the atmosphere in the Tattered Cover bookstores. And, yes, my house looks very much like this, except we don’t have green carpeting.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Friends, family, seeing my daughters happy, a life with my husband, and a professional life where I’m in close touch with readers, authors and the future of publishing.
What are some of your most treasured possessions?
Recipes from my mother, pictures drawn by my grandchildren and, of course, every single one of my books.
What are the first books you remember reading?
When I was very little, my mother took me to the public library. I read my way through the entire library—everything from fairy tales to science to history to biography.
What is the future of the book?
The book is alive and well but certainly in transition in terms of its delivery to the reader. Although I enjoy the printed page, e-readers are part of the now and the future.
What philanthropic or community work do you do?
I’m involved with literacy and education issues. And we collect books to give to the under-advantaged and to send to underdeveloped countries.