Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore

In the Tattered Cover Bookstore, we find the books that bind Denver together.

(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine.)

EVEN FIRST-TIME VISITORS stepping across the threshold of The Tattered Cover Book Store in lower downtown Denver feel like they’ve arrived at home – that is, if their home had a half million books.

It’s not for nothing that the space has been described as “Denver’s living room,” and indeed there seems to be almost enough seating for the entire city: flowery upholstered couches and overstuffed chairs reminiscent of grandma’s house, leather wingback chairs from a Victorian parlor, old wooden library chairs, train-station benches and church pews. Longtime customers return to a favorite chair and lamp, sometimes moving the lamp to their seat before launching into their reading.

The first floor has a warm glow that gives a perpetual feeling of the golden hour just before sunset, no doubt imparted by the wood that dominates the interior. On the first story, customers tread a well-worn hardwood floor, and above them is a timbered ceiling and massive wooden support pillars whose evidence of hand-tooling remind you that the building began life in 1896 as the warehouse of the C.S. Morey Mercantile Co. A jaunt up the wide staircase takes visitors to a second floor much like the first, but with wall-to-wall carpet of a deep, soothing green.

“We always want to make it a comfortable environment for our customers – not too fancy, not too shabby,” Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis said. “We want it to feel like a comfortable slipper.”

A bookstore is nothing without books, and at Tattered Cover there are 150,000 titles to choose from on the towering wooden shelves, all lovingly curated into special sections. There are shelves dedicated to local authors and abundant staff picks with handwritten reviews.

Tattered Cover is more than a place to buy things, says John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor.

“It’s become a tradition, and like any great tradition it binds people together,” Hickenlooper said. “It is the cement that holds together our civic architecture.”

Meskis was bitten by the bookselling bug in college, when the Chicago native worked in a bookstore near the Purdue University campus. She married while still in college and moved to Colorado after graduation. Meskis raised her young family’s two daughters while working bookstores and libraries for about a decade. It was around the time the marriage ended that she committed to her dream of running her own bookstore. The big opportunity came in 1974, when she was able to scrounge the resources to buy The Tattered Cover, then a three-year-old, 950-square-foot storefront in Cherry Creek North that, despite its name, sold only new books.

The store thrived, compelling Meskis to keep expanding into a series of bigger locations nearby. She busted through walls to grow the store into adjoining spaces and carved through ceilings and built staircases to gain second-floor retail space. In 1986, Tattered Cover moved into the old Neusteter’s department store building in Cherry Creek, with four floors of books. The store later added The Fourth Story restaurant, which consistently won a spot on Best of Denver lists.

In 1994, the Tattered Cover LoDo store was in the first wave of businesses that opened in the neighborhood, before the opening a year later of nearby Coors Field transformed the once seedy area into a popular draw for families and tourists. Hickenlooper, who before his political career ran the Wynkoop Brewing Co. two blocks up the street in LoDo, became business partners with Meskis in the mixed business and residential Mercantile Square development, which includes Tattered Cover. It was Hickenlooper who introduced Meskis to his old friend Jed Rulon-Miller, owner of Wines Off Wynkoop in Mercantile Square; when Meskis and Rulon-Miller married, Hickenlooper, who was by then the mayor, performed the service.

“Colorado is a place where a large percentage of our population has come from all over the country,” Hickenlooper said. “The Tattered Cover is one of those institutions that gives them a common identity.”

The store is a forum for people and ideas to come together, and it is a magnet for the literary world. The walls abound with portraits of the literary giants who have appeared at book signings there, but there’s also a candid photo of an improbable meeting between President Jimmy Carter and Yoko Ono, who ran into each other in 1995 at the Cherry Creek store. Carter was there to sign his new book, and Ono just happened to be browsing.

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