Joyce Meskis Was the Principled Entrepreneur Behind Denver’s Wonderful Tattered Cover Bookstore

The Tattered Cover in Denver is my favorite bookstore. I remember one time as I was exiting, running into Scott Parris, then an economics editor at Oxford University Press, who would later be the acquisition editor for my Openness to Creative Destruction. I remember he asked me if I had seen any books in economics in the Tattered Cover that looked promising. On another memorable occasion I visited the bookstore with my daughter Jenny’s Montessori middle-school class as a bookend to the class’s trip to Estes Park. It is a large welcoming bookstore, with comfortable chairs, good coffee, and a wonderful and diverse selection of books. At least it was during the years that Joyce Meskis owned it. (It may still be–I have not visited for several years.)

(p. B12) In 1995 the writer A.E. Hotchner presented Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, with a PEN American Center award recognizing her efforts on behalf of freedom of speech and expression.

“In this room,” he said at the awards ceremony, “there are writers, editors, publishers, and the rest of you are readers. If this woman fails, we all fail. We don’t exist unless the bookseller can sell us.”

And that was before Ms. Meskis went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court to prevent law enforcement officials from knowing what books one of her customers had bought.

Ms. Meskis, who built the Tattered Cover into one of the most successful independent bookstores in the country, died on Dec. 22 [2022] in Denver, the National Coalition Against Censorship announced.

. . .

In addition to creating a bookstore famed for its vast selection and bibliophile-friendly atmosphere, Ms. Meskis often took a stand in matters related to censorship and the First Amendment. Sometimes those positions were not easy ones to embrace.

. . .

To Ms. Meskis, owning a bookstore was about more than just sales. As she told The Arizona Daily Star in 1992, “It’s my view that as booksellers we have our own version of the Hippocratic oath — to maintain the health and well-being of the First Amendment.”

. . .

Her stances didn’t always involve government regulation and court battles. In the late 1980s, she vowed to continue selling Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” despite anonymous telephone threats after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran declared the book blasphemous and called for the author’s death.

. . .

If Ms. Meskis was celebrated for her First Amendment stands, she took that spotlight reluctantly.

“Trouble finds us, we don’t go looking for it,” she told Publishers Weekly, an oft-repeated line. “When you’re in a general community, you will always have challenges. There are things I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect so many court battles. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

For the full obituary, see:

Neil Genzlinger. “Joyce Meskis, 80, Bookseller Who Defended Readers’ Rights.” The New York Times (Thursday, January 12, 2023): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Jan. 11, 2023, and has the title “Joyce Meskis, Bookseller Who Defended Readers’ Rights, Dies at 80.”)

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