Tattered Cover’s CEO Kwame Spearman is running for mayor

Spearman grew up in Denver, left the city for an Ivy League education and a corporate career, and returned to buy Tattered Cover.
5 min. read
Tattered Cover CEO Kwame Spearman stands in the bookstore’s new location at McGregor Square. June 8, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Tattered Cover CEO Kwame Spearman has filed to join the crowded race for Denver mayor, which may be the most powerful position in Colorado.

On Jan. 7, Denverite first saw Spearman's name appear on the Denver Campaign Finance Dashboard, where other active mayoral candidates appear.

Spearman explained why he's entered such a crowded race.

"Not only are we emerging from a pandemic, but we're trying to stave off a recession," he said. "And right now what the city needs in this critical stage is a clear vision and policy and most importantly plans that can actually result in action.

"You know, for me, this is not about a race that is entirely focused on winning," he continued. "This is a race that's about my home."

He views himself as a "neighborhood mayor" that will focus on efforts to bring each community what it needs, from community-specific policing to development initiatives that increase housing density where it is desired. Spearman himself lives in Whittier.

He wants businesses to be able to raise wages. To do so, small businesses will need additional support through low-interest loans.

"I think what Denver needs more than anything else right now is a political outsider that not only brings fresh ideas, but real solutions and a willingness to tackle the big problems that the city is facing," Spearman said.

He will be competing with a string of powerhouse candidates, including City Councilmember Debbie Ortega, State Rep. Leslie Herod, longtime CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Kelly Brough, former state Sen. Mike Johnston and many more.

Spearman, one of several investors who stepped in to save the independent bookstore chain in December of 2020, grew up in Denver and attended East High School. He earned his BA from Columbia University, his JD from Yale and his MBA from Harvard.

He was involved in student government and served as former Colorado Senator Mark Udall's deputy press secretary on his successful 2008 campaign.

Most of Spearman's experience has been in the corporate world.

He has worked as a consultant for Bain and Company, served in leadership roles at the fast-casual chain B.Good, and was head of expansion at Knotel, a $1.6 billion co-working real-estate company that filed for bankruptcy in January 2021, shortly after Spearman took over leadership at Tattered Cover.

Spearman's time at the helm of Tattered Cover has included rapid growth. He is running eight stores across Colorado, including new shops in McGregor Square, Westminster, at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, and in Colorado Springs. When he took over Tattered Cover, it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Here's how he explained the store's growth to Denverite in 2021.

"When we bought Tattered Cover, the organization was headed towards bankruptcy," he said. "The amount of revenue from our stores was not enough to support the entire organization. To secure a future for our brand and avoid bankruptcy, we had two options -- to grow or dramatically cut costs with company-wide layoffs. We chose to grow. By adding more stores, we're hoping to provide more revenue -- which will help us get to a point where we can pay people what they deserve."

While the chain has expanded, Spearman has also come under fire from employees and former employees for workplace bullying, which Denverite covered in depth last year. He denied those accusations.

Since returning to Denver, Spearman has served on high-profile boards.

Those include the Denver Health Foundation, the Denver Public Schools Foundation, the Colorado Education Initiative, and Poets & Writers.

His filing comes weeks after Tattered Cover's longtime owner Joyce Meskis passed away.

Tattered Cover still appears to be struggling.

Spearman told Denverite that book businesses are always in an "uphill struggle" and that a review of Tattered Cover's financials from the past thirty years would show that trend. He declined to share the store's financials with Denverite.

In November, he posted that Black Friday sales can make or break independent businesses, imploring the community to support Tattered Cover and other shops.

It's helping small businesses stick around that has, in part, inspired him to enter the race.

Bookstores, in general, operate on "razor-thin margins," he said, adding it doesn't help that there are more disincentives to do business than incentives from the city.

Despite those challenges, "Tattered Cover will survive," he said. "We got the company through the most difficult time for retail, potentially ever. We grew so we could match the growth of the state. And we're still alive and kicking. And I think 2023 is gonna be a fantastic year for the business."

Though he may not be at the helm. Spearman plans to step down as CEO if he's elected mayor.

Could he resign to focus on the race sooner?

"We have a lot of contingencies in place for the next few months," Spearman said. "We're working with our board and our senior leadership team on those things. And as soon as they are public, we will let folks know. But as of Monday, I'm still CEO of Tattered Cover."

Update: This story has been updated to reflect how Denverite learned about Spearman's mayoral campaign and with comments on the race from Spearman. Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Mark Udall lost in 2008. He won. We regret the error. 

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