Conducted by Anna Klenke
Joyce Meskis has been the owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, CO since 1974. During this time, Joyce developed the Tattered Cover to be one of the largest and most successful independent bookstores in the country. She is a nationally renowned bookseller and first amendment rights activist, and is currently the director of the Denver Publishing Institute, a graduate certification program for aspiring publishing professionals. Joyce has also received many prestigious awards, including the American Booksellers Association Lifetime Achievement Award. She is an important force in the literary community and an advocate for the continuation of a strong literary culture in the face of technological developments.
AK: Could you talk a little bit about your educational background and entrance into bookselling?
JM: Well, I was planning to become a teacher at the university level. I proceeded to work in bookstores and then libraries during college to help pay the tuition bills. I moved to Colorado from the Midwest and enrolled in graduate school, still working in bookstores and libraries. Then I literally woke up one morning, stared at the ceiling and said, “You idiot, you’ve been doing what you love all these years, why don’t you just get on with it?” So I dropped out of graduate school and got more serious about the book business.
AK: That’s really brave to drop out of grad school to work in bookselling.
JM: I don’t know how brave it was. It didn’t feel brave. Certainly the risk factor was a weight on my brain. But I was at a transition point in my personal life, which played a role. And I loved the physical act—it sounds corny—of putting books and people together. And that’s really what it’s about. There’s something very satisfying about that, and you know that you played a small role in making it happen.
AK: Starting a small business does involve a lot of risk. What made you decide to buy a bookstore and start out on your own?
JM: I decided that I wanted to develop a trade bookstore in an area that seemed to right for having such a retail enterprise. I drove around Colorado and the city of Denver and settled on what I thought was an opportunity in a planned community development way south of Denver in a rural ranching community. I opened up a small bookstore there, which didn’t make it. I was open less than a year and it was a casualty of a planned community development that didn’t develop. And without the project and the people, my little bookstore wasn’t going to survive. I saw the handwriting on the wall. And so I started looking for a job in the book business and looked and looked and looked, but I was having no luck at all. But I was reading the Denver Post Sunday book pages one weekend and I noticed in the book review column a little blurb about the Tattered Cover bookstore being for sale. At that time it was a small three-year-old store in the Cherry Creek area. And I thought, “Hmm, maybe there’s an opportunity there.” I went to inquire and the owner wanted more money than I could ever imagine. I kept thinking about it, though, and I put my pencil onto the back of an envelope, crunched some numbers, and said, “Maybe I can do this.” I created a small business plan, and though the sum seemed out of my league, the good news was the owner didn’t want much money down and the other piece of good news was he was willing to carry the note, meaning he was willing to be the banker. And that was very important because I had no credit history. It was hard in those days for women to get loans. So I borrowed money from everybody I could and made an offer, which he rejected. He said somebody had made a better offer and he was going to take it. So glum, glummer, glummest, I went back to my little bookshop and tried to figure out a way to close it down and get a job.
Some time went by and, long story short, a friend of mine said, “You really ought to go check and see what’s happening at the Tattered Cover because it doesn’t look like there’s been an ownership transition.” And I said something like, “Oh, I’m a quiet person, I don’t push.” And he said, “You really ought to go check.” And I went and checked and of course the deal had fallen through and who knows why the owner hadn’t come back to me. Lesson #436 in life, you need to keep at it.
AK: How has bookselling changed since you bought the Tattered Cover?
JM: For an industry that seemed like it was going at a snail’s pace prior to that, as I look back it has really changed quite a bit. Obviously the heart and soul of it hasn’t changed. Authors, ideas, books, readers. That’s really what it’s about. The substance is there. What has changed, of course, are channels of distribution, the technologies that help us keep track of things, and the confluence of all those things coming together has really changed the industry. Now that the technologies are getting to be even more sophisticated, it’s going really fast. But there are challenges to every generation.
AK: What does the loss of Borders mean for the book industry?
JM: It’s a bad thing. It’s a bad thing for the readers to lose choice in their communities. The Borders brothers in Michigan had a beautiful vision at the inception of the store. As time went on, different circumstances came along and the company was sold. That they have declared bankruptcy certainly hurts the publishers enormously. And it temporarily even hurts their competitive retailers, most specifically Barnes & Noble, because they often built stores in very near proximity to each other. And as Borders sells off their inventory, people are going to be buying those books and not shopping elsewhere.
AK: Do you see an opportunity for independent booksellers to fill the gap that Borders is leaving?
JM: I think some will, depending on where the existing locations are. And certainly there may be independents that crop up to fill the gap where there is no other chain bookstore. Other chains may expand into the space.
AK: There are a lot of really interesting literary magazines out there right now discovering new writers and pushing new genres forward. What has your experience been with literary magazines and how do you think they affect the greater literary community?
JM: I think they are so important to our literary culture. But they’re hard to sell, from a retailer’s point of view. It’s a tragedy, because they’re beautiful. The cover art is exquisite, let alone the content inside. It’s heartbreaking! And I’m not sure what to do about it. At the store we stocked a substantial amount of literary magazines. But I have to say, the journals are tough and we did cut back as they were not selling.
Check back next week for PART TWO....