Joyce Meskis of Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, CO

 Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, CO

Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, CO

Joyce, you’ve evidently been fighting for First Amendment rights for quite some time. What first got you started in fighting censorship of the written word and freedom of speech, i.e., what personal beliefs or experiences have you had that made you a strong proponent of First Amendment rights?

It probably dates back to my childhood. My parents were very keen on reading and my mother took me at a very early age to story hours at the library. I spent a lot of time reading as a child. Along the way I became aware of censorship issues. There was a big brouhaha over Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place when I was a teenager, and of course, the term “banned in Boston” was referenced in conversations having to do with censorship issues historically. There was also the matter of the “red scare” in those days, the McCarthy hearings, whether information about communism should be made available in the schools, …. I could never imagine why people would want to censor material, because I felt strongly then (as I do now) that our governmental system is based on the access to and debate of ideas of all kinds. In order to have an informed citizenry, they need the freedom to read. People don’t just need to have access to the ideas with which they agree, but also those with which they might disagree. Don’t we want to know what the other side is thinking?

Well, one thing just led to another. When I shifted my major in college from math to English literature, I had an independent study course where I read a lot of the social critics, and I also took a course in Milton and read the Areopagitica, which is his treatise on freedom of the press. And I got into the issues of those times with respect to the tensions between the government and its people. Of course, our own country was in its infancy then, but it’s easy to see how those events in England affected the thinking of the colonists here, and subsequently the formation of our own governing documents.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist, or just a strong believer in those First Amendment rights?

The latter, but I am certainly a person who believes in equal rights for women on all fronts.

It sounds as though you’ve had to fight both “officialdom”(in the form of a lawsuit to fight subpoenas by the North Metro Task Force of customer records relating to material found during a raid on a methamphetamine lab), attempts by individuals or groups of citizens to censor what books you carried in your store, i.e., The Satanic Verses in 1989, you forming the Colorado Citizens Against Censorship and leading a successful campaign against laws permitting easier labeling of material as obscene in 1994, and having controversial authors signing books at your store–most notably overcoming author protests in 1992 canceling signings because of the anti-gay referendum passed by Colorado voters and your subsequent refusal to limit author signings to non-controversial authors . Have you ever had serious threats of violence made against you or your store because of these courageous stands?

We had veiled threats with the publication of Satanic Verses when we refused to remove it.

If so, what actions have you taken to protect yourself and your store?

It was the only time in my life where I checked the undercarriage of my car before I got into it. As far as the store goes, we had staff meetings to heighten awareness. And we were particularly watchful about unattended bags. We also tried to keep exposure limited with regard to the staff being photographed by the media. I was to be the main spokesperson. Another general manager was designated if I was unavailable.

Have there been picket lines, nasty letters, threats of lawsuits, etc.?

There certainly have been picket lines, but to date only at author signings is my recollection (Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton in particular). Yes, there have been nasty letters, too.

Has there been pressure against you or your business in other forms?

Certainly, there has been in the form of customers vowing never to shop in our store because we stock a particular book or host a particular author that they don’t like.

Have there been other lawsuits on such First Amendment rights involving you or your store?

Yes, a lawsuit in the early eighties; legislative challenges; a veto by the governor at one point; …. I would have to do some research to remember it all in the correct order.

And what did your lawyers tell you to do initially when your records were first subpoenaed (in relation to this present lawsuit)?

When we received the first “administrative subpena” I faxed it to Dan Recht, our attorney. He informed me that it was an administrative document and not enforceable (I, of course, wouldn’t have known this.). Dan and I know each other well. He knew that we would see this as a First Amendment issue. He also knows that we are law abiding and supportive of our law enforcement officers. However, given the First Amendment implications here, he knew that we would want to take this through the correct judicial process. So, we talked about it. Dan said that he would call the individual who served the “subpena” (yes, this spelling is correct, and it is the second spelling listed in Webster’s), saying that we were not required to comply with it and consequently wouldn’t. He suggested that the officer could pursue a real subpoena from a magistrate, and we would litigate it, moving to quash the subpoena. It was Dan’s impression that the officer indicated that he didn’t want to go that route. We thought the matter was over. But it wasn’t. The next step was a search warrant, which is immediately actionable. Fortunately for us Dan was able to persuade the officers and the Deputy Denver DA to hold off on the execution of the warrant. We filed for and got a temporary restraining order, and filed suit in the Denver District Court.

We’d also be interested in details about what support you have received. I know you received the prestigious William J. Brennan Award in 1996, and that the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression (ABFFE) has been collecting donations from booksellers to help defray your legal costs. I believe some authors also formed a support drive for you? Have there been other forms of support? And is there enough support to keep your lawsuit from being a real financial burden for you and The Tattered Cover? Has any pro bono legal help been offered to you?

Yes, we have had a lot of support and are very grateful to so many organizations and individuals. ABFFE, the various organizations that have signed on to Amicus briefs; Dan and his colleagues who are working at a fraction of their usual fees; publishers, booksellers, authors, readers who have offered words of encouragement and financial contributions to ABFFE; and many attorneys who have offered pro bono legal help have all played a significant role in this process.

Have these “threats” increased or decreased over the years (i.e., we tend to think we are becoming more tolerant of other peoples’ rights over time, but the events you’ve had to fight have happened in the last few years)?


Have you seen any increase or decrease in business at your store since you became involved in fighting for First Amendment rights?

Well, we’ve fought for First Amendment rights for a very long time. It’s hard to say. Along the way we have had years of significant growth. But the marketplace pressures have been very difficult for the last several years for independent bookstores, the Tattered Cover included.

In a related vein, do you impose any censorship on yourself on the type of books you stock–i.e., are there any that, for whatever reason, you wouldn’t stock? If so, why (if not too nosy)?

No, we will provide access to any material that is constitutionally protected that comes through our regular distribution channels.

And do you have any specialties in the types of material you stock or are interested in carrying?

We’re a general bookstore, with perhaps a stronger emphasis on fiction, children’s and psychology books.

I understand you had another book store before you bought The Tattered Cover. What can you tell us about that experience?

It was a casualty of a planned community development that didn’t develop, a very heart wrenching and expensive experience.

And how and when did you first decide to become a book seller?

I got my first bookselling job in 1960 at my university book store, to help pay the tuition bills.

We all know The Tattered Cover is one of the largest independent book stores in the U.S. I believe it was quite small when you bought it. How did you grow it into such a large, prestigious store and business? And do you have any advice for other booksellers, whether online or bricks & mortar? What attributes or personality traits do you think are essential for a successful book store owner (or even an online bookseller)?

I’ll pass on this question, other than to say, one book at a time when it comes to growth. And the word “success” has an elusive definition when it comes to business life, particular the life of a bookseller. It’s always been hard, and that hasn’t changed. Perseverance and passion for the work helps. But nothing is ever guaranteed in business life. The circumstances in the life of each bookseller are different.

I understand that you once moved your book store with the help of your customers? How did this work?

Yes, actually it happened twice. They volunteered when they learned we were moving.

What’s your philosophy in running book stores, i.e, what sets your stores apart and makes you able to compete with the chains?

I’ll pass on this question, too, in the interest of time.

What do you see as the future of independent book stores? And, have online booksellers hurt bricks & mortar stores, in your experience? If so, has the harm been done by independent online booksellers, or by such “new” book online sellers as Amazon and Barnes & Noble?

This, too, is a question that we could discuss forever. I do believe that independent bookstores play an important role in their communities. While we have seen their market share decrease from ~31% to ~15% in ten years, the rate of decrease seems to have stablized somewhat. Of course we’re in a recession now, as well as in the aftermath of 9/11 so this doesn’t help keep the clouds out of my crystal ball. I think that information will move in the most user-friendly manner possible and that the distribution of that information will continue to change. Certainly, online booksellers in all forms are part of that information stream.

Do you ever intend to put your inventory online?

Yes, actually it was online when we developed our own website some years ago. That changed when we went with a year or so ago. It’s my understanding that booksense is working with bookstores to provide that option.

Since your business has grown so much, with you now owning two book stores and a restaurant, do you still find the same satisfaction and love of dealing with books in your business, as it is now?


We’d love to know more about you, as a person (most of what is public involved your involvement in protecting First Amendment rights). Please tell us anything you wish about you and your life, and thanks so much for participating in this interview!

I have two grown daughters and I like to cook when I have time. I live in a small loft right over pool table 14 at the Wynkoop Brewing Company with the best alley view in Denver. Whew! Are we done?

Interview by Shirley Bryant.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website