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: What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a bookseller?
JM: Seeing a kid come along and say, “Oh wow, you’ve got that book!” That just reverberates through our hearts. But adults, too. It’s magic.
AK: The Tattered Cover is known for its inviting atmosphere with plenty of places to sit and read. Could you talk about the bookstore as a community space?
JM: We felt from the very beginning that the bookstore is an asset to the community. I had felt that for a long time bookstores could be places that certain populations of people felt intimidated by, because all those books along those shelves are symbols of knowledge to some people. And we always wanted to make people feel comfortable and at home coming into our shop. That has been a primary goal of ours from day one. Especially for kids. We’ve had story hours and special events and family-friendly Friday nights. We have tried to make the bookstore a gathering place.
AK: A lot of people seem to have a very personal, intimate connection with books. What do you think makes books as objects so special?
JM: That’s a good question. A book really is a physicality as well as food for thought. I think that art is certainly part of it. And I think that the connection between the ideas contained therein and the reader is what makes the object significant. There’s something about the content, whether it is an idea that you ascribe to or that has been articulated in a way that touches you deeply, so it comes so close to you in that regard. But I think a book can also be on your shelf when you don’t feel quite that same way about it, but it’s important to you from an intellectual standpoint. You may not agree with its content and its ideas, but you feel that it’s important to have that debate, and so you keep that book on your shelf as well.
AK: Similarly, I think people feel a real connection with authors who write books that they really enjoy. The Tattered Cover has hosted hundreds of book signings with authors from J.K. Rowling to David Sedaris. Why do you think it is important for many readers to connect with the authors of books they love?
JM: I think they feel that they’ve met a soulmate. Or, conversely, back to the debate. It does work both ways.
But mostly it’s the soulmate.
AK: Do you still get excited about certain authors coming in?
JM: I do. Every single one is different and has his or her own special quality. It’s like the child running up to the book. “Oh wow, you’ve got that book.” And, “Oh wow, here’s the author that wrote that book.” You can’t beat it.
AK: What are some of your favorite other independent bookstores around the country?
JM: Oh, wow, there’s a lot. Northshire in Manchester Center, Vermont. McNally Jackson in New York. Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. There’s a little shop up in Grand Lake, Colorado that I was at. The bookshop was very tiny, but it was so perfect. The owner had just the right number of bestseller books and books that are of national and global interest, and certainly the regional connections and children’s books. It was a very personally curated collection for her customers and the tourists that came through. It’s not size that is the goal. It’s how you are connected to your customers.
AK: What does the reading community need to do in order to keep physical bookstores alive?
JM: Buy books. Simple…but difficult. People like to have an independent bookstore, but they don’t think about what it takes to make it happen.
AK: Apart from your bookselling life, you are involved in a number of literary organizations and programs, including Denver Publishing Institute. How did you get started with DPI?
JM: Many, many years ago Elizabeth Geiser invited me to speak about bookselling, and I kept coming back every year for a long time. Now the program is in its 36th year.
AK: How do you think the next generation of publishing professionals will change the industry?
JM: Even though technology has become so much a part of our lives, the business is still heart and soul. What’s important is using the technology to the best interests of the reader. I don’t think print is going to go away. I do think that there will be an increase of readers as a result of the technology, and I hope that brings a greater awareness of the book as art. I know the book as art can happen in whole new ways with technology, and I think that will be part of what your generation will be doing. But I do think that there’s nothing else quite like the object—ink on paper between boards. It’s a simple construct, but wow… what goes on in it is very, very important. To hold it in a special way, read it in a special way, absorb it in a special way… I think our enjoyment of books will continue for awhile.
AK: So you’re optimistic overall?
JM: I am, overall. It’s always hard to clear the fog from the crystal ball as you enter new endeavors. But it will become clearer. You’ll make it happen.