The Tattered Cover Book Store, a renowned independent with three locations, is among this city's best-loved landmarks.
Since 1974, when Joyce Meskis purchased a small bookstore that had been operating in Denver for three years, it has been the personal touch that makes these stores both cosmopolitan and uniquely local, feeding from and nurturing their neighborhoods, two inside Denver city limits and one in suburban Highlands Ranch.
I first explored the Tattered Cover's LoDo location. That's Denver-speak for lower downtown, the pedestrian-friendly historic district. I took the free bus, powered by electricity and compressed natural gas, that runs the length of the 16th Street Mall to the store at the corner of 16th and Wynkoop streets.
This Tattered Cover, which opened in 1994, is housed in the huge, elegant Morey Mercantile Building, built in 1896. As soon as you enter, you feel at home amid exposed beams, well-trafficked wooden floors and an inviting cafe.
I found a diverse crowd of the book obsessed — the young green- and purple-haired set, elder gentlemen in rumpled corduroys, preteen boys actively cruising the art books. Like them, I wanted to move in and wrap myself in the aura of print. Patrons lounged in overstuffed chairs, at lovely wooden tables and on the plentiful divans. Many had their coffee and snacks nearby, clearly settled in for the afternoon.
This store has new and used books, stacked together; journals and magazines, including a whole case of French publications and another of political science; and stacks of sports magazines, from Transworld Skating to Surfer's Journal.
I wondered about the wisdom of making reading at the store so pleasurable, but owner Meskis thinks people browse, then buy: "Ink on paper is something so dear, in terms of the physical, mental and cultural way we acquire knowledge. A book has the feel of an art form in the way it's constructed."
And manager Matt Miller told me, "Book buyers are attracted to the physical, pristine quality of a new book."
The bookstore does have a website that sells e-books. Meskis says, "Information will always move in the easiest manner possible. After World War II, GIs returned home having been exposed to Penguin paperbacks and many folks turned up their noses." Despite the growth of e-book sales, she believes people will still want to own printed books.
While the LoDo store is a mainstay of a revitalized downtown, the Colfax Avenue location, with its ample parking, has helped to bring shoppers and diners back to the historic street mentioned in Jack Kerouac's On the Road as the road west.
This part of Denver is lined with hundred-year-old homes, but like many urban neighborhoods, it had succumbed to hooker motels and hard drugs. Miller said rentals nearby now advertise proximity to the bookstore, which opened in 2006. And an excellent independent record and film store, Twist and Shout, has opened next door.
The Colfax Tattered Cover is also housed in a historic building, the art deco Lowenstein Theater, once owned by Helen Bonfils, publisher of the Denver Post. The store has even preserved a portion of the original stage, and you can look up and see the rafters that once held curtains and backdrops.
At the Colfax store, I spoke with Ben Leonard, a regular customer for 25 years, who does equine therapy with incarcerated teenage boys. At Christmas he volunteers to help wrap books, noting that he has learned not to say "Happy holidays" because some people suffer from the holiday blues.
In what was once the theater's office and backstage area, you can dine at Encore, a chic though affordable place to enjoy a fun appetizer like Telluride jalapeno poppers with apple smoked bacon, or a flatbread pizza like the Fig N Pig, with prosciutto, fig jam and arugula. (You can check the full menu at encoreoncolfax.com.)
Servers wear T-shirts bearing the motto "Stay Classy, Colfax." The restaurant also calls itself the Colfax Country Club. My waiter suggested this might all be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the sometimes controversial pleasures of gentrification.
The three locations of the Tattered Cover (the Highlands Ranch store opened in 2004) employ 150 people, and the cultural impact is immeasurable. In addition to offering readings and community events, the store has often been at the forefront of the fight for First Amendment rights.
In 2000, Meskis refused to turn over to police information about a book bought by someone who was a suspect in a drug case; eventually, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in the bookstore's favor. Ultimately, the suspect was convicted without the bookstore record, though he later revealed he had purchased a book on Japanese calligraphy.
Meskis has battled for freedom of expression at her stores over books by Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich, and over the store's scary-story contest. One case involving sexual content in a book marketed to minors also made it all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Meskis is past president of the American Booksellers Association, the organization of independent booksellers. Independent businesses, including bookstores, brand a city for locals and tourists alike, giving back to the community in local currency: It's estimated that 45 cents on every dollar spent in independents stays in the local economy, while 80 percent spent in chains leaves in the nightly deposit.
As Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, says, "One-of-a-kind independents define and reflect a city's character, becoming destinations with national reputations precisely because of their uniqueness."
The Tattered Cover is one of those businesses with a national, even international reputation. When I called to arrange interviews, Miller assumed I was from the Russian St. Petersburg Times. Like Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., the Strand in Manhattan, City Lights in San Francisco, like our own independents, the Tattered Cover helps define its hometown and is a must-visit place.