The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, one of the country’s most iconic bookstores, is changing ownership. Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, the couple who bought the Tattered Cover five years ago from Joyce Meskis, have sold the store—which consists of four locations in and around Denver and a fifth planned in Westminster, Colo.—to Kwame Spearman and David Back, described in a release as “Denver natives, high school rivals, and long-time friends.”
The change in ownership was completed yesterday and Vlahos and Gilligan will stay on for an undetermined period of time as consultants. In the meantime, Spearman and Back have have formed a limited liability company, Bended Page, with “a diverse group of Colorado-based investors and national bookselling and publishing experts” on board to assist.
In an open letter posted on the bookstore’s website this morning, Vlahos explained the rationale for the sale. “The impact of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic made it clear that Tattered Cover was going to need not only new management, but an infusion of capital,” he said. “The difficult sales environment has not kept pace with the business’s mounting debt. We saw this coming a long way off and have spent months doing all we can to ensure a bright future for the bookstores, even if our roles had to change. As Kristen and I thought about the next steps in our journey, it was of paramount importance to ensure that Tattered Cover be placed in the hands of an ownership team who values the power of this special place and what it means to the community.”
The Tattered Cover was founded in 1971 in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood by Stephen Cogil. Meskis purchased it in 1974 and sold it to industry veterans Vlahos and Gilligan in 2015.
According to the release, Back’s first job at 15 was working as a cashier at Tattered Cover’s now-closed Cherry Creek location, and Spearman’s “favorite restaurant in high school” was the Fourth Story, which operated in the Cherry Creek outlet from 1995-2006.
After launching his professional career as a consultant at Bain & Company, Spearman, a graduate of both Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, has worked across numerous industries, with a focus on retail and consumer companies. He currently serves as head of expansion and landlord partnerships at Knotel, a flexible office provider for companies. Back, who holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, pursued an M.B.A. from Cambridge University’s Judge School of Business before dropping out to launch Zoomcar, the first rental car company in India.
In an email to PW, Oren Teicher, the American Booksellers’ recently retired CEO, wrote: “I’ve been working with Kwame and David on this for several months, and could not be more thrilled that it’s all come together.” Spearman and Back, he continued, “represent a critically important next chapter for indie bookselling; their energy, enthusiasm, and business expertise are extraordinary. Whatever challenges lie ahead, their decision to step up and buy the Tattered Cover gives me enormous confidence in the future of indie bookselling.” Teicher added that, with Spearman becoming the new co-owner of Tattered Cover, “it will become the largest Black-owned store in the U.S.”
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