Tattered Cover CEO: ‘Spirit of Joyce Meskis’ to continue under Barnes & Noble ownership

Barnes & Noble will be the first corporate, out-of-state owner of the longstanding Denver bookstore.
6 min. read
Tattered Cover CEO Brad Dempsey sits in the store’s East Colfax Avenue location. June 18, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Since joining Tattered Cover 24 years ago, Paula Bisgard has sold thousands of books under three different ownerships. 

But soon, pending approval from a judge in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, she could become an employee of Barnes & Noble — the first corporate, out-of-state owner of the longstanding Denver bookstore. 

“'I've been with the store for so long and it's been a part of my life since my youth,” Bisgard told Denverite. “I feel positive. Change, it's going to happen for a lot of businesses. I feel like we've had a wonderful leadership team to guide us through this. I think the fact that we get to keep our name Tattered Cover, I'm feeling good about it.”

Longtime Tattered Cover employee Paula Bisgard at her post behind the register in the store's East Colfax Avenue location. June 18, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

On Monday, the board that oversees Tattered Cover announced it intends to sell its five locations and all the company’s assets to the bookselling giant for $1.8 million. 

Tattered Cover has been searching for a solution to its financial woes since October, when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closed three locations and laid off nearly 30 workers. 

Under the agreement, Barnes & Noble would continue to operate the stores under the Tattered Cover moniker and will continue to employ “substantially all” current employees.

Still, the acquisition marks a big identity change for Tattered Cover.

Just before noon on Tuesday, loyal Tattered Cover customers browsed the shelves, many with the news of the impending acquisition at the front of their minds. 

One family of four, who was visiting from Iowa, came because the mom had fond memories of visiting the bookstore as a kid. As they browsed, she balanced a stack of books in one hand and several Tattered Cover t-shirts in another, hoping to take home mementos. 

Rachel Schmeling sauntered into the store with a large iced coffee to buy herself a book for her birthday. When she and her partner were deciding which city to move to, Tattered Cover’s now-closed McGregor Square location helped sway her decision toward Denver. 

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “One of the reasons that I think we really wanted to come here is they really felt like there was a thriving, independent kind of scene, be it bookstores, small businesses, that sort of thing.”

Schmeling said she’ll continue to give her business to Tattered Cover, despite being saddened by the Barnes & Noble bid. Still, she said future purchases won’t have the same feeling behind them. 

“I don't know if it'd be my first choice,” she said. “I think I'd rather support a bookstore that is smaller or an independent bookstore.”

Tattered Cover CEO Brad Dempsey said the “spirit of Joyce Meskis” will live on under private ownership. 

Meskis was the second owner of Tattered Cover, but many consider her to be the woman who forged the bookstore into what it is today.

During her four-decade ownership, she pioneered Tattered Cover’s first coffee venture, introduced live events, and experimented with what it meant to be an indie shop. After her death in 2022, she was remembered as a strong advocate of the First Amendment.

Dempsey told Denverite that Meskis’ passion for books and free expression will continue to live on through employees and loyal customers, something that Barnes & Noble will take note of while helping Tattered Cover update its backend infrastructure.

“Those people still have the spirit of Joyce Meskis, the spirit of Tattered Cover, the spirit of Cherry Creek,” he said. “We just have to adapt to the current era and be able to use what we have here to really let take the best of the past, but merge it into the future to put it on a sustainable platform.”

Tattered Cover CEO Brad Dempsey sits in the store's East Colfax Avenue location. June 18, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

When the board hired Dempsey, a bankruptcy lawyer by trade, as CEO to help Tattered Cover navigate a difficult financial situation, he said his goal was to, “preserve and protect Tattered Cover’s legacy for the future.”

Securing the Barnes & Noble bid fulfills that mission, he says.

“The company's never really been profitable over the last, I would say, almost decade or more, and the ability of our booksellers to do what they do has been really restrained by the lack of financial support, the technology problems that have been here,” he said. “This is going to allow us to fix those problems and allow our booksellers to really invest in these locations that Joyce Meskis picked and allow us to do the best bookselling that we can do and continue our brand as one of the best booksellers in the nation.”

The Tattered Cover deal would be Barnes & Noble’s first foray into acquiring an independent bookstore in the United States. 

“Tattered Cover is a storied bookseller that has long been central to the literary life of Denver. Its loss to the community would have been a calamity and Barnes & Noble will provide the support necessary for it to thrive again,” Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt said in a statement.

Barnes & Noble’s bid beat out two other offers — including one from a former Tattered Cover CEO

A competing bid came from Kwame Spearman, one of three investors who bought Tattered Cover in 2020 and its former CEO.

Under his leadership, Tattered Cover underwent rapid growth, opening new locations and expanding hiring. Spearman hoped those moves would attract enough revenue to pull the bookstore out of its financial slump.

Spearman left the chief executive role to run for Denver School Board in April 2023, six months before Tattered Cover filed for bankruptcy. Alongside a colleague, he lodged a bid in an attempt to chart his return to the bookstore.

Kwame Spearman, owner and CEO of the Tattered Cover, stands in the bookstore's Colfax Avenue location. Jan. 10, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“While it is important that the business will continue to operate, it is disheartening to see Colorado lose its independently owned and managed bookstore,” Spearman said in a statement. “Despite this setback, I remain confident in our local economy and firmly believe that independent bookstores can still thrive in Colorado.”

Dempsey said he first became aware of Barnes & Noble’s interest in acquiring Tattered Cover in March. He said its offer was the best on multiple fronts.

“The bids that we received from the other two bidders were far short of the Barnes & Noble bid, and also critically did not contemplate for the continuity of operations that [the] Barnes & Noble bid is going to do here,” Dempsey said. “So, if the board had selected other bids, it would've meant store closures and layoffs of employees.”

What's next?

The deal to acquire Tattered Cover is awaiting final authorization from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which could happen by the end of July.

More details, including future leadership structure and what would happen to Tattered Cover’s food and beverage arm, have yet to be announced.

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