Obituary Note: Joyce Meskis

Joyce Meskis

Joyce Meskis, who built the Tattered Cover, Denver, Colo., into one of the premier independent bookstores in the world, was an inspiration to several generations of independent booksellers, and was a champion of free speech and the First Amendment, died on December 22. She was 80.

In 1974, Meskis bought the Tattered Cover, then a small bookstore of 950 square feet. The bookstore steadily expanded, and for a time, occupied the 40,000-square-foot space of a former department store in Cherry Creek, with four floors and a full-service restaurant on the top floor, making it one of the largest bookstores, chain or independent, in the country.

Tattered Cover pioneered or perfected many staples of independent bookselling, including having cafes, encouraging customers to sit and read, offering an extensive range of author events and other programming, and seeking to make the stores community centers. She also emphasized staff training, sent employees to booksellers schools, encouraged them to be involved in book world organizations and treated staff with respect and openness.

Under Meskis's leadership, in the 1990s, Tattered Cover opened in the Lower Downtown district, which helped rejuvenate the area after a period of decline. It also opened branches in and around Denver and now has eight stores, as well as several outlets at the Denver International Airport that are managed by Hudson News. She sold the Tattered Cover in 2015 to Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan. A group led by Kwame Spearman bought the store in 2020.

Meskis was deeply involved in bookselling organizations. She was president of the American Booksellers Association, taught regularly at the old ABA booksellers schools and was executive director of the Denver Publishing Institute for seven years. She was also instrumental in the founding and growth of what is now called the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association. As Heather Duncan, executive director of MPIBA, noted: "The association began as the Denver Booksellers Association in 1956, became the Colorado Booksellers Association in the early '70s, and was incorporated as MPBA in January 1980. Joyce (then Joyce Knauer) acted as chairman of the organizational meeting of the newly formed board of directors and was elected the first president of the board at that meeting."

Meskis's was a lifelong supporter of free speech and the First Amendment and engaged in several important legal cases that the store ultimately won in the Colorado supreme court. One fought a 1984 law that criminalized the sale and display of sexually oriented material to minors. Another, decided in 2002, limited drug enforcement agents from accessing store records of a suspect's book purchases.

Meskis founded the Colorado Freedom of Expression Foundation and won the Jean Otto Friend of Freedom Award from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and the William J. Brennan, Jr. Award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. She also won the Gordon Saul Memorial Award for Bookseller of the Year in 1997 from MPIBA and was the recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Denver as well as the Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Achievement and Exceptional Service to the Denver Metropolitan Area from the University of Colorado.

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