I saw the news first on what I still call Twitter, even as I’m trying to convert to Threads. A friend had tweeted that on top of everything else going wrong these days, the Tattered Cover had declared bankruptcy.
The news was nearly as shocking, to my system anyway, as it was unsurprising.
The stores weren’t closing yet, the linked news article said. Not all of them anyway. But it’s not hard to see where this is headed. Even if the Tattered Cover somehow survives, it won’t be the same Tattered Cover I fell in love with when I moved to Denver sometime in the last millennium.
How could it be? It hasn’t been the same Tattered Cover for years. You’ve seen the stories about disgruntled employees. If you’ve dropped by any of the stores, you’ve seen the not-exactly- barren, but far-from-packed bookshelves.
Anyway, when I retweeted the news, I mentioned that when I first arrived in Denver – so long ago that the state GOP was still a going concern and the Broncos would win the occasional football game – my main requirement for a house was that it be in close proximity to the four-story, restaurant-on-top, books-everywhere- else, Cherry Creek Tattered Cover.
That’s a true story. And so it came to pass.
This was a time – and, yes, children there was such a time – when many people could actually afford to buy houses in Denver. And though maybe not one, even then, in Cherry Creek, I could find someplace close enough that the Tattered Cover would become a second home.
I knew the Tattered Cover long before I moved here – first by reputation as one of the country’s great bookstores and then by experience. Many people come to Colorado for the outdoors. When I came to town, I headed indoors to one of the two Tattered Cover stores for the avalanche of books ever threatening to fall from the crammed shelves.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy mountain vistas. I’m just happier somewhere I can see, say, Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain.”
And virtually every day after moving here, I would drop by the Tattered Cover on the way to work. Fortunately, in my job as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, I didn’t punch a clock. So let’s just say my mornings there were, well, leisurely. My editors would definitely say that.
But before any writing could get done, I needed to get coffee, get the papers – yes, this was also a time when there were still great printed newspapers, including the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News and the pre-Aldenized Denver Post – sit down in the old (even then) cracked-leather chairs and luxuriate in the presence of more books than I could ever count, much less read.
It was, well, perfect. I never belonged to book clubs, even though my wife would sometimes belong to at least two. My schedule didn’t allow it. But the Tattered Cover was my book club. The staff that worked there – and also those, like me, who were daily patrons – were my people. For me, and for a lot of others in Denver, it was a place to just be.
The employees worked for more than a not-substantial paycheck. It was for a way of life. And now a quarter of the employees have been laid off.
In good bookstores, the people who work there read books, especially the good books. They write pithy, handwritten reviews pointing you toward their favorites. In the great bookstores, the people who work there also know what books you want to read. I was a junkie then. I’m a junkie now, although I no longer get to the Tattered Cover as often as I’d like.
But the evidence of my, uh, weakness is in every bookshelf that lines the walls of my house. Oh, yeah, and the books that are piled on the nightstand. And the ones on my desk. And the books I know I’m going to get for my birthday, for Hanukkah/Christmas.
If you’re a reader – and I’m sure most of you are – you understand. Like libraries, when they’re still open anyway, bookstores are not just the place to find the book you want. It’s the place to find the book you never knew you wanted, but one that could change your life.
The Tattered Cover’s late longtime owner, Joyce Meskis, who built it from a tiny shop into a Denver institution, was a hero. She wasn’t only a First Amendment champion, who reliably fought all the good fights. She gave us a bookstore that – maybe you remember – was a place to see and be seen, a place packed on a Friday night, when people (OK, maybe just me) had to be pushed out at closing time.
And one of my greatest thrills came just after I’d done my annual column about the best books I’d read that year. I walked into the store to find a display featuring the books I’d recommended. I knew I belonged.
If it sounds romantic, it was. Look, I was bummed when the rents in Cherry Creek got too high and forced Meskis to move the store. But the switch was to the present site on Colfax that had been home to a historic theater and was remodeled with old, red velvet theater seats. That was the kind of move you’d expect from the Tattered Cover.
We all know the story of independent bookstores and how they were threatened first by big chains and then by evil Amazon. I confess I buy stuff online. I don’t always support local businesses, although I feel guilty when I don’t.
But I never buy a book online, no matter how deep the discount. I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong to do that. I’m just saying.
Tattered Cover has been losing money for a while. It tried to grow its way out of debt, which seemed like a mistake at the time. There are now seven bookstores – or there were until this week – but not all of them were special in any way. Some are just stores with a special name. They even left the historic Wynkoop location, the one I could walk from when at work, back when there were newspapers downtown.
According to the bankruptcy filing, Tattered Cover is deeply in debt to publishing houses, and for years now, the stores didn’t necessarily feature books you couldn’t find somewhere else. And even at the Colfax store, the shelves, while hardly barren, don’t necessarily feature books you can’t find somewhere else.
Once upon a time, John Updike, a novelist you may have heard of, wrote an oft-quoted line about bookstores: “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.”
You can still find that old feeling at some smaller independents in town, like Capitol Hill Books, the Printed Page, West Side Books, just to name a few.
But in Denver, the Tattered Cover has for half a century been its own neighborhood, with its own light, with its own considerable contribution to whatever degree of civilization Denver and Colorado can rightly claim. Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. This opinion piece originally appeared October 18 on The Colorado Sun (coloradosun. com).