Inside Indie Bookstores: Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver

Jeremiah Chamberlin
From the September/October 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Over the next several years you expanded, however.
Yes, in increments.

Was this the plan from the beginning, or did opportunities arise that allowed you to grow?
I can't speak for every bookseller in the world, obviously. But wouldn't you say it's true that every bookseller sort of has this dream of the bookstore in the sky—what it could be, how you would want to have so much of what you loved and what your customers appreciated, and then also have the opportunity to pique their interest in different areas without betting the ranch?

Of course.
So I don't think I had a goal to have a huge bookstore by any means. But I certainly wanted to grow it to a size that would accommodate a fine representation of the wonderful books that are published. So every time one of our neighbors in the building would move out, we would take the space if it were available and if it were the right timing for us. We were fortunate in that way. There was growth in the commercial area, there was growth in what was possible in the book business in Denver, and we took the opportunities.

But looking back, I think our biggest decision in terms of growth in that first store was when we decided to move upstairs in the original building. Quite a bit of space had become available on the second floor and it was offered to us at a good price because second floor space—for retail—is less desirable. So I pondered and pondered and pondered it. Because the question was: How do you get the customers upstairs? And any time our customers or colleagues found out that we were considering this, they thought the sky was falling! They were very concerned and they gave me all kinds of advice: "Don't do it, don't do it; your customers won't follow you. It will be the end of the Tattered Cover. It will be dreadful."

Were you going to move the whole store upstairs?
Oh, no. We were going to have both floors. We were going to put in a staircase. And it's not like there weren't stores that had tried this before. Obviously department stores were multi-level. But it wasn't quite the same thing. Our colleagues and sales reps and customers were just beside themselves in their advice to me about not doing this. And I kept thinking to myself, "Well, I'm sure they've got good reasons for this, and I can see both sides to the story..." but we needed the space, we were growing, the rent was very compelling, and I simply didn't want to lose that opportunity. And I thought, "We could make the staircase wider; we could put books on the landings to draw people up the stairs; we could put destination sections up there..." I said, "We can do this so it doesn't feel like an interminable journey up these stairs."

Fast forward—we did it. Our landlord had a charitable streak from time to time, and he loaned me the money to put the staircase in. And the customers came upstairs. But our colleagues were right in that it is much harder to get people upstairs. Still, it worked. And it worked again. We took again more space upstairs when it became available. So we grew from about 950 square feet to 6,000 square feet in that location. Then we were out of space.

Then, perhaps 1980 or so, I started looking around for space within the immediate area to move to. And so I was looking, looking, looking, looking, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Moving a store is a serious decision, you know?

And no small undertaking.
And no small undertaking, even though we'd become pretty used to barreling out walls and moving bookcases. In fact, in my earliest years, after my husband and I were divorced, I lived in a small place with the kids. I would go to the lumberyard and have my boards pre-cut and then bring them back in the car. I had space in the alleyway, which was next to the store, and I'd be banging away, making new bookcases. [Laughter.] I'd forgotten about that.

So, you know, we were stuck. It didn't seem like anything was going to work. And then I had a visit from a developer in town who had his eye on a vacant piece of property next to a parking garage next to a department store that was across the street from a shopping center. It was an open field at that point, and he was planning on putting in ground-floor retail and then a little bit of an expansion of the parking garage next door above on the roof—a few extra stories of parking. And so he said, "I'll cut you a good deal. Would you like to move over here?" It was only half a block away and it was brand new space—two floors, totaling about 11,000 square feet. This was double what we currently had. And he was willing to do a lot for us to get us over there, and I thought, "Okay. Let's go for it."

So we got serious about that and we were planning to sublet the old store location of 6,000 square feet. But then the bookstore grapevine came through town and we learned that Pickwick Books was considering bringing a store to Denver. You probably don't remember Pickwick Books.

No, I don't.
Pickwick Books was a new development arm of the Dayton Hudson Corporation, which owned B. Dalton back then. And Crown Books—do you remember Crown Books?

I do.
Well, Crown Books was very successful opening up in the Washington D.C. area. They were one of the first major discounters and they, were really doing a number on the independent stores, as well as on the B. Dalton and Walden stores. So my assumption back then—"assumption," keep that in mind—was that when the powers that be got together and saw what was happening with Crown in their locations, they got nervous and started to think of ways they could counteract this trend. So B. Dalton—at that time owned by the Dayton Hudson Corporation—decided to do an experiment. They had purchased a small, regional chain in southern California called Pickwick. Then they converted those stores to B. Dalton stores and they retired the Pickwick name. But they still owned it. It's my understanding that by still owning that name they decided to use it for their trial run of a new bookstore model: heavy discounting, using Crown as the model. They were going to place it in three or four cities around the country to test market it, and one of those cities was Denver. [Laughter.]