On Wednesday, the Tattered Cover announced it had changed hands. Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan sold the 49-year-old independent bookstore to Bended Page LLC. Billed as “national bookselling and publishing experts,” Bended Page is owned by Denver natives (and former high school debate rivals) Kwame Spearman and David Back.
The famously independent bookstore’s new owners said they remember visiting the Tattered Cover as kids. Spearman, Back and Vlahos spoke to Denverite shortly after news of the sale broke to discuss the future, the past and why the Tattered Cover is now the largest Black-owned bookstore in the U.S. (This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Denverite: Kwame and David, first things first: How will this sale manifest to customers? In other words, how will they be able to tell the Tattered Cover is in new hands?
Kwame Spearman: Our vision is to make the Tattered Cover a place for the community. We want every single customer to be able to walk into our store or interact with our brand and feel welcome. What that means is, the trust with our staff that they can find the perfect book for them or have an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. The good news is, Tattered Cover actually does that super-well. We just want to build upon that. We want to ensure when the time comes we can do more community events inside our stores. That our inventory reflects the diversity and richness of Denver and that we can proactively tell the community that they can feel welcome. A lot of that is just adding to what the Tattered Cover has always been.
David Back: In the short-term, of course holiday shopping season has already begun and our absolute top priority is the same priority as Len and Kristen, which is the safety of staff and customers.
Spearman: Can I also add, I don’t believe in the demise of retail. I don’t think retail is going away, but it does have to evolve. The way it evolves is, it needs to focus on two things: One, you’ve got to entice customers with your product. Secondly, you have to have experiential. That’s why we made this acquisition, because Tattered Cover is good at both those points. Everything we do will be additive. We’re going to maintain what keeps Tattered Cover special.
Len, why did you decide to sell?
Len Vlahos: The honest truth is that the impact of the pandemic on the business financially has been devastating. We closed our Colfax location for three months and our LoDo location for four months. The numbers were looking grim. We were so fortunate to meet David and Kwame — they have a brilliant investment strategy to raise capitol investment in the business. We’ve secured the long-term future of the Tattered Cover, not just from a financial perspective, but we put it in the hands of people who have the same kind of vision and passion Kristen and I did. Overall we’re really thankful that we’re able to pass the torch to these guys.
Kwame and David, do you have any expansion plans? Will you maintain all the current locations?
Spearman: We’re fortunate to be opening in McGregor Square later in 2021.
I actually remember going to Coors Field as a child and watching how it aided in the development of lower downtown. I think McGregor Square will be similar. It’s a monumentally cool landmark, and we’re super-excited to be in the center of it. We’re also going to Westminster.
Back: The historic Tattered Cover Wynkoop location is being moved to McGregor. All the employees, the books, even the book shelves.
Spearman: We’re not closing any locations besides Wynkoop.
Len, do you and Kristen plan to stay on staff in any capacity?
Vlahos: I’m going to stick around through the end of June to help these guys transition in, and I’ll take a role in getting the LoDo store moved to McGregor. We’ll be around whenever Kwame and David need us after that.
Regarding the statement released this summer, the apology that came after said you all were committed to working with organizations to help you “chart a path forward.” Did that work ever happen?
Vlahos: We absolutely did. After we issued that apology we actually partnered with a local diversity, equity and inclusion practitioner called Prismatic that helped guide us. We put together an action plan, which plays out in ways to be more mindful of those thing and to be better allies. We’re already down the road on many of those action items. We’ve been extraordinarily active. DIE work comes up in any management conversation we have now.
Spearman: Our mission is to look forward, not backwards. Personally, I’m a strong advocate of BLM, and one of the things we will ensure is that Tattered Cover is always on the right side of history. The role of an independent bookstore with such a wealth of knowledge and information and community will be pivotal when we’re seeing changes in the world. That’s something that we’re obviously going to monitor. Other thing that I’ll say that we’re super-excited about at this point: Tattered Cover is now the largest Black-owned bookstore in the U.S. It’s kind of a cool twist of events and something that we obviously hope to add to the dialogue that BLM and some of the other movements have begun. (Editor’s note: Spearman identifies as Black and will be the CEO and major shareholder of Tattered Cover.)
How will you all as the new owners support authors of color?
Spearman: First, we need to get authors of color from an inventory perspective into our stores more than has been done previously. That’s not to say there haven’t been huge efforts, but you can always do more. We want to be able to highlight them. Once the world opens up to events and interactive sessions, it’s all about community. We understand the vibrancy of the Denver community, and we’re going to reflect that. I hope that with the DIE efforts, but also with the demographics of the new leadership, we will be a signal that Tattered Cover is an inclusive place. Lastly, we’re going to reach out. I’ve already had conversations with Lighthouse. One of the things I’m going to make my mission is to try to listen and understand and use that in formulating our long-term vision.
Kwame, David, can you guys talk a little about the other businesses you own?
Back: We only own one business: the Tattered Cover. This is not something we do habitually. We really believe and care about the Tattered Cover, and we made it our mission to pull it back from the brink.
Spearman: With that in mind, I will be the day-to-day CEO of the organization, and with housing what it is in Denver, I might even live in one of our stores. I’ll be there all the time!
Back: I think Len’s laughing because he’s been living in the store during the holiday-shopping crunch. He’s been in the trenches helping shift holiday orders.
Vlahos: I’m laughing because I think it’s true: Kwame may end up living here. I’ve gotten to see how hard these guys work, and I have no doubt it’s going to be all in on Tattered Cover.
Wait, so is there a secret apartment at one of the Tattered Cover stores?
Back: We wouldn’t tell the press that, would we?
David, Kwame, what drew you guys to the Tattered Cover?
Back: We grew up in Denver, grew up loving the Tattered Cover. We were there all the time. My first job was there. It’s a really wonderful place in Denver, and also the Tattered Cover provides the best retail experience.
Spearman: Colorado needs Tattered Cover, and Tattered Cover needs Colorado. Colorado needs small businesses.
What will Tattered Cover look like at end of the pandemic?
Spearman: We’re really fortunate with our investor group. These are the people who have made Colorado what it is today: Dick Monfort, owner of the Rockies; Kent Thiry, former CEO of Davita; Margie Gart of the Gart family; Brad Feld. We’ve got people who are invested in the community and understand the community.
We’re going to create a plan that allows the Tattered Cover to be around for another 50 years. Is there going to be more digital and e-commerce? Of course. Are we going to have more events? Yes. But fundamentally, the reason we’re all in on this is that Tattered Cover’s soul is great and Denver loves it. For us, it’s really to maintain it as a cultural institution and expand upon that, to interact with the community more digitally. We don’t want to do very much to the brand.
Len, what’s next for you and Kristen?
I’m focused on the next six months and helping these guys hit the ground running. I’m not really looking past that. We’re going to stay in Colorado; we’ve fallen in love with it. We have two school-aged kids and are raising them here. After six months we’re going to just be happy customers of the Tattered Cover.