Inside Indie Bookstores: Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver

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

This was now in the 80s?
This would be the early-to-mid 80s, because we were supposed to move in '82 but there was construction delay. So we moved in January '83 into the new space. And then we learned that Crown was doing this roll-out across the country and that one of the cities was also going to be Denver.

Cue ominous music.
Right! [Laughter.] So I took my calculator home and tried to figure out what they knew about bookselling that I didn't know. And I couldn't see how we could maintain our position. So I thought, "Well, we can't discount. But we can give the bargain-conscious customer something else. We can go heavily into bargain books—remainders." But we needed more space to do that. So we decided to keep the old store space and put it primarily into bargain books. That's also about the same time that we decided to go more heavily into periodicals and sidelines. Anyway, it turned out that business thrived.

Tattered Cover is often cited as one of the first independent stores to develop an author reading series. Were readings a part of Tattered Cover from the beginning?
It happened early, but it happened in an unusual sort of way. As I said before, I had worked in bookstores when I was in school. And when I bought Tattered Cover we were not really seeking author events because I had seen too often a lovely gathering where nobody came, and I didn't want to put the author in that kind of position. Well, one day I got a call from our sales rep for Little, Brown and she said, "Joyce, I've got an offer to make to you. Ansel [Adams] is going to be on his way to see Georgia [O'Keeffe] in New Mexico and he's going to stop in Denver. Would you like to have him for a signing?" I held my breath and said, "Absolutely. We would be delighted to have a signing." Though I was completely terrified. I had heard that he was very particular about the plates on the books and that he would go to the printers about it, and so I thought he must be a difficult and demanding personality. But when he came he couldn't have been sweeter. Just wonderful. And, of course, the line was out the door. I was sold at that point. The magic of that moment—of seeing the author and his people—was just fabulous.

I remember when Tom Wolfe came for The Right Stuff. We had a wonderful group of folks waiting for him, and events just became a part of our community experience. Every signing—every one—is different. To me, there are no two that are exactly the same. You can make all the predictions you want. There are some elements, of course, that are common to any signing. But when it comes to a particular reader meeting a particular writer, a particular connection is made and there's nothing like it that has ever existed before. It cements the building blocks of the whole experience of reading and publishing and writing. It's just wonderful.

Are there any other authors or events that you found particularly special?
Once we had acquired the second floor in the original building, we did all the signings up there. And at one point we had the opportunity to host Buckminster Fuller—a forward-looking architect and writer of note. As it turned out, he was on his last tour. He was quite elderly at the time. And when he walked in the door and I saw how frail he was, I thought, "He's never going to make those stairs." So I said, "We'll bring the signing table downstairs." But he said, "No, no, no, no, no." He was going to go up those stairs and sit at that table and greet his admirers. And he did so. It was a daytime event, and his admirers almost genuflected when they came up to the signing table. It was that type of experience. And as the line was coming to a close, his adult grandson, who was traveling with him, said to me, "Do you have a large pan that you could put some warm water in for granddad to soak his hand?" It turns out that he'd broken a finger or two but he insisted on coming to sign. That was really remarkable.

Do you also do nonliterary events here that are community oriented?
When we're not doing signings here [in the events space] or when there is a gap for some reason, we will rent this space out to the community; we also have a minimal rental rate for nonprofits. And sometimes we'll just let some organizations use it, such as the Lighthouse Writers Group. They meet here once in a while. So, yes, it's a community meeting space.

Another thing I'd like to talk with you about—because it has to do both with the local community here in Denver and the broader literary community—is the First Amendment case that you were involved in. Can you talk a bit about how this came about?
In 2000 we were approached by a DEA agent who served us with a subpoena to turn over some records. But the subpoena—upon sending it to our attorney—turned out not to be an official subpoena. After my attorney looked at it, he indicated to me that this type of subpoena was not actionable. So he called the agent, informing him that in order to obtain access to the records a proper subpoena would need to be presented.

But the agent indicated that he didn't want to take that course of action. So we thought that was the end of that. But three weeks later, my attorney, Dan Recht, called and said, "Joyce, I got a call from an individual in the Adams County DA's office, saying that a search warrant is in the works on Tattered Cover, in the hopes of getting the sales records for a particular customer." And I said, "A search warrant? That is immediately actionable." I knew that much about the law. But he said, "Don't get excited yet; I asked for some extra time. We have until the end of the business day tomorrow to come up with a response. So I want you to think about this overnight, and I'll call you tomorrow afternoon.

The decision was whether to allow it?
The decision was about how we were going to respond. Because there's no decision to be made about "allowing" a search warrant—once issued, the authorities can act on it. So the next day I was in the office and I got a visit from one of our floor managers. She said, "Joyce, there are police officers here with a search warrant and they want to see you." I said, "That's impossible." And she said, "No, it isn't; they're here."

So you began shredding all your records, right?
No. [Laughter.] I said, "Okay, send them upstairs and we'll deal with this." There were four or five individuals, all dressed in civvies. They weren't jack-booted police officers or anything like that. In fact, they were dressed like booksellers—one had a ponytail; they wore tennis shoes. They were all completely gentlemanly. But they had a search warrant. So I said, "May I call my attorney?" They said, "Yes." And when I called Dan he absolutely hit the ceiling: "They can't do that! They gave us until the end of the business day today! Fax me a copy of the search warrant."

So while the warrant was faxing over, I was sitting with the officers and talking about the First Amendment and the Kramerbooks case [in which independent counsel Kenneth Starr tried unsuccessfully to obtain Monica Lewinsky's purchase records from an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.]. They had a mission and the mission was going to be accomplished. They said, "This isn't about you." I said, "I know it's not about me." They said, "You're perfectly legal." I said, "I know we're perfectly legal." They said, "You can sell anything that's constitutionally protected." I said, "I know we can sell anything that's constitutionally protected—that's what we sell." This went on: "But we need this information." "Well, I see that as a First Amendment issue." "It's not a First Amendment issue." "Yes, it's a First Amendment issue."

Meanwhile, Dan got the copy of the search warrant and he asked to talk with the lead officer. So I put him on the phone and they went at it. While Dan was talking to him, I kept talking to the other officers. Finally, at the very end, I said, "What are the books that you're after, anyway? How do you even know we stock them?" And one officer looked me right in the eye and he said, "You'll special-order anything, won't you?" [Laughter.] Got me.

Throughout this meeting they kept saying, "We just want this one record, we just want this one record from this one customer." And I asked, "What if you don't find what you're looking for?" And he said, "We'll take the next step then." Which I translated as: The search warrant goes into effect and they look at more records and more records.

Somehow, some way, Dan was able to persuade them to hold off for ten days. So they left the store, Dan and I conversed, and within a heartbeat Dan filed for a temporary restraining order in the court, and we got it. This enabled us to file suit against them—to get a judicial opinion on whether the search warrant could move forward or not.

Whether it truly was an infringement of First Amendment rights?
Right. That's what was up for debate.

Was it the individual's right to privacy being defended, or was it your right?
It was the individual's right. I asked the officer, "Why don't you just go to the individual and get us out of the loop?" But the officer replied, "He's not going to tell us anything." You see, we didn't know anything about the case. We assumed it had something to do with drugs because the DEA had been involved earlier, but that was all we knew.

So they suspected that this individual had purchased a particular title, but they needed to verify that fact with you.
That's right. They wanted confirmation. When we learned more, as our case moved through the judicial process, we found out that it had to do with a meth lab. There'd been suspicion of a meth lab in a trailer home in a trailer park in Adams County, and so the officers had been able to get a search warrant for the premises on probable cause that illegal activity was happening there. As they suspected, they found a small meth lab in the bedroom of the trailer home. They also found in the trash what they called a "mailing envelope" from Tattered Cover. The mailing envelope had a mailing label on it, and there was an invoice number on the label. There was also the name of the person to whom the contents of the envelope were addressed, who lived at the trailer home. But there was no indication what had been in the envelope.

Because there was no invoice?
Correct. Inside the trailer home, near the meth lab, were two books on how to make meth. And so the officers said, "Aha!" They wanted to put the two pieces of evidence together to tie it to that specific person. They wanted to know who occupied that bedroom, because there were four or five people who lived in that trailer.

So Tattered Cover was within its legal rights to sell that book; the officers simply wanted to identify which individual had bought it so that that purchase could be used as circumstantial evidence to prove who had been making the meth.
Right. So they went to get a search warrant for us after we were unwilling to turn the information over with the unofficial subpoena. But because Tattered Cover is a legitimate business, the DA's office in Adams County may have felt there wasn't any danger of us destroying evidence—which is normally one of the reasons why a search would be necessary. Instead, they wanted the officers to do more due diligence first—dust the books for fingerprints, interview people in the trailer park to see who lived in that trailer, and so on.

So they went and did the fingerprinting, which yielded no results. In fact, one of the books still had its brown wrapper around it. Hadn't been opened, hadn't been cracked. And the other one looked like it hadn't been cracked—the spine was clean.

But the officers wanted to take the shortcut. And since they were on hold with the Adams County DA's office, they went to Denver for the search warrant. They could do that because we're located in the city and county of Denver. So now we're in the Denver district court and we find out that this is going to go on for a while. Dan's is a small office. He doesn't have a big corporate office to absorb costs, and he was charging us little. Meanwhile, we were getting five-dollar donations from customers to help pay legal fees. And Chris Finan from the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression stepped in. And our pal Neal Sofman in San Francisco held a fund-raiser at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books with Daniel Handler, who writes as Lemony Snicket, along with some other authors to raise money for us.

So this was becoming a national issue.
It became a national phenomenon. We were getting calls from national press. I never saw anything like it. Meanwhile, all we're trying to do is sell books. [Laughter.]

Yet 90 percent of your time was spent on this issue.
And our customers—every time we'd been involved in cases like this before there was press, and each time I thought, "This time the customers are not going to understand and we're going to go out of business." I thought for sure that would be the case with this one. I mean, a meth lab? We don't like meth labs. But that was not the point of the case.

So that judge in the district court gave half a loaf to each side. In his decision, he ruled that authorities could not have the thirty days' worth of material/background on this customer that they were seeking. But the Tattered Cover would have to turn over the record of what was mailed to that customer on that one invoice. So then we had a decision as to whether to appeal our case to the Colorado Supreme Court or not. And we did.

To skip to the end of that story, we got a 6-0 decision in our favor. One judge abstained; I have no reason why.

How long did the entire process last?
Two years. It was decided in 2002. And once it was over, the authorities finally went out and got the guy. They put him in prison for a number of years.