Joyce Meskis, the pioneering bookstore owner and fierce First Amendment advocate who built Denver’s Tattered Cover into one of the nation’s most beloved literary institutions, died at home Thursday surrounded by her family, the store announced on social media. She was 80 years old.
“When future historians look back at the later 20th century and early 21st century, one of the most important people in this city’s history will be Joyce Meskis,” said Mark Barnhouse, who wrote a biography about the iconic book chain last year. “There are mayors, governors and other prominent people, but Joyce is right there among them.”
When she purchased the Tattered Cover in 1974 using a small loan from her uncle, Meskis inherited a 950-square-foot bookstore in Cherry Creek — smaller than some Denver condos. Within 12 years, she had taken over the 40,000-square-foot former Neusteter’s department store building on the corner of Second Avenue and Fillmore Place with half a million books in stock.
Meskis popularized the concept of a bookstore not just as a place to purchase novels but as a place to spend the afternoon with a cup of coffee curled up in a cozy chair, reading until you realized the sun had long since set. She had a keen eye for antiques, employees said, and made sure each chair had its own reading lamp.
“Her legacy is changing the way people think about bookstores and their role in society,” said Cathy Langer, a longtime employee who worked closely with Meskis for decades.
Some of her most enduring contributions, though, went beyond selling books. Meskis twice won cases before the Colorado Supreme Court — one challenging a 1984 statute criminalizing the sale of sexually oriented material to minors and the other which affirmed an individual’s right to purchase books anonymously.
Tattered Cover vs. city of Thornton — prompted by Meskis in 2000 blocking drug task force agents from searching store records as part of a narcotics investigation — changed the landscape of First Amendment law in Colorado. And it underscored Meskis’ unwavering commitment to free speech, no matter the consequences.
“This is about the right to privacy and the freedom to read what you like without police looking over your shoulder,” Meskis told The Denver Post in 2000.
She went on to found the Colorado Freedom of Expression Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to informing the public about the First Amendment.
The case vaulted Meskis’ stature to new heights among her employees as well as national observers.
“It made me so proud to work for the Tattered Cover, for someone like Joyce, who stood up for what she believed in,” said Susan Gilmore, a longtime Tattered Cover employee.
Workers had a saying they would repeat to one another: WWJD. What would Joyce do?
“We’d put on our Joyce hats, think hard and hopefully make the right ethical or personal choice,” Langer said.
Those who worked alongside Meskis over the years said the store felt like a family. The owner made a point to hire those on the fringes, individuals who may not have other employment opportunities because of their sexual orientation or had otherwise been cast aside.
“It was incredible what she created amongst the staff,” Gilmore said. “It really was magical.”
Every year around Christmas, if the store surpassed the previous year’s sales, Meskis would bring out carts of champagne for employees and customers. Then she would hand her workers handwritten notes on cards with pen-and-ink drawings of Tattered Cover. Inside would be a bonus or a gift card.
One year, with the libations flowing, an employee came down the grand staircase in the Neusteter’s building playing the bagpipes.
“Working for Joyce was just an extraordinary gift in my life,” Gilmore said.
“The rest is history”
An Illinois native, Meskis went to Purdue University expecting to be a math teacher or an English literature professor, she told 5280 magazine in 2015. She continued on to graduate school at the University of Denver, still working in libraries and bookstores.
“Until I woke up one morning and said to myself, ‘Wake up, you idiot. Don’t you realize you’ve been doing what you love all these years?’ I dropped out of graduate school, and the rest is history,” Meskis told the magazine.
In 1974, the single mom with two young daughters opened the book pages of the Sunday Denver Post and saw Tattered Cover had come up for sale, Meskis said in the 2015 interview.
“I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, thought I could make it work, and made an offer,” she said.
Before Amazon crippled the independent book industry, Tattered Cover was the place in Colorado to find books that might not exist anywhere else. The stores carried books in Braille, the Oxford English Dictionary and obscure foreign volumes that a chain such as Barnes and Noble wouldn’t shelve.
And she just kept expanding, at one point keeping more than 100 employees on payroll.
“Joyce was never afraid of taking a business risk,” Barnhouse, the biographer, said. “That separated her.”
The bookstore over the years became a destination for celebrity authors. Current and former presidents, including Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, went to the Tattered Cover to do book signings. J.K. Rowling stopped through. So did Jimmy Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Fourth Story Restaurant & Bar on the fourth floor of the Cherry Creek location served a who’s-who of Colorado politicians, business executives and everyday folks looking for a good meal with good views.
“It was phenomenal to see who was waiting at the elevator on the first floor to go up for lunch,” Langer said.
In 1989, U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth stood before his colleagues in the Capitol and extolled them to visit “one of Colorado’s treasures.”
“Colorado is a most unique and marvelous state,” Wirth said, according to the Congressional Record of the 101st Congress. “It is a state of majestic mountains, rolling rivers, wide plains, vibrant cities and the Tattered Cover Book Store.”
“A literacy lioness”
Meskis was a private person, friends said. Even when she was opening new stores, fighting at the Colorado Supreme Court or winning a litany of national awards, she never wanted it make it about herself.
The bookstore took up much of her life, but Meskis spent her free time gardening and cooking her ancestral Lithuanian cuisine. She also served as president of the American Booksellers Association and directed the University of Denver’s Publishing Institute.
After 41 years, she sold her beloved business in 2015 to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan. Two years ago, a trio of Denver natives led an investment team in purchasing the book chain from the couple. The new management has opened several new locations, even as it faces daunting economic realities in the wake of a global pandemic.
Even though many viewed her as a cultural figurehead, Meskis never saw herself in that light.
“No, I’m a bookseller who still, 50 years after my first bookselling job, gets a thrill out of seeing a person’s eyes light up with the joyful and thoughtful pleasure of reading a book,” she told The Post in 2012. “It seems to me the legacy of any bookstore is in the love of reading and the critical thinking fostered in the customers we’ve served.
“One hopes it carries forward, playing some small part in making a better world.”
This story first ran on the Denverpost.com, a BusinessDen news partner.