The local and national investors who bought Denver’s Tattered Cover book stores have watched as reactions roll in to their purchase, ranging from joy at the local chain’s apparent salvation to fury that its owners would dare claim it as the nation’s largest Black-owned book store.
“I’m not saying I deserve everyone’s trust, and the last six months have not been the brightest among Tattered Cover’s history,” said Kwame Pearson, who became the new CEO of the Tattered Cover’s four locations, over a Zoom call from London. “I think it’s a bit premature to make any decisions about what our point of view is on any of these topics. Let’s have this conversation in six or twelve months, not a few days into our tenure.”
However, skeptics of the deal say the Tattered Cover invited this scrutiny for claiming to be the largest Black-owned book store in the United States despite Pearson being the only Black person in the mostly white, 13-member investment group.
Shortly after the sale was made public, Black booksellers across the U.S. denounced the Black-owned claim as an insulting marketing ploy that ignores their work, at best, and at worst, cynically hijacks this year’s Black Lives Matter progress for commercial purposes.
“It’s like if Jeff Bezos partnered with a Black person and then said, ‘Amazon is the biggest Black-owned business in the world,’ ” said Danielle Mullen, owner of Semicolon Bookstore in Chicago, in a Dec. 11 Publisher’s Weekly article.
“I see zero discussion of the horrific statements that came out of Tattered Cover over the past year,” said Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Md., in the article.
Those “horrific statements” preceded the rough patch that Pearson alluded to. As Black Lives Matter protests swept Denver after the brutal police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, public and private organizations rushed to endorse the resurgent social justice movement.
Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, who owned the Tattered Cover at the time, took a different tack.
Vlahos and Gilligan released a neutrality statement on June 6 affirming their commitment to free speech, regardless of the subject matter, using examples such as the store’s refusal to cancel an in-store visit from gun-rights advocate Ted Nugent shortly after the Columbine massacre in 1999 — despite intense pressure to do so.
A coalition of Denver cultural leaders immediately pushed back on the statement, urging Vlahos and Gilligan to show how they’re going to support Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in light of their neutrality.
“It was a cowardly move when there’s so much that requires immediate and necessary change,” said Bobby LeFebre, Colorado’s poet laureate. “That in and of itself is a marker of money. It’s a business move, not a human move.”
LeFebre is among more than 1,200 people who signed a community letter to the Tattered Cover, published on thewordfordiversity.org, that includes a 10-point diversity plan the owners need to follow if they want to win back the trust of former customers and partners.
“We write to insist that Tattered Cover take immediate actions necessary to its responsible participation in our community,” it read. “Championing the free exchange of ideas is a laudable central goal, but turns quickly dangerous without clarity of the principles you seek to steward.”
Just as quickly, social media wrath, author cancellations, staff resignations and broken partnerships with organizations such as Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop compelled the owners to reverse course. It was a worst-case scenario for the stores, which were closed to in-person visits due to pandemic restrictions.
“We offer an unqualified and unequivocal apology for the statement we made on June 6,” the owners wrote, just two days after their initial statement. “We are horrified at having violated your trust. We deserve your outrage and disappointment.”
The damage had been done, it seemed, and the choice between selling or shutting down suddenly became much clearer.
“The Tattered Cover was going to go out of business due to a lack of money,” Pearson said. “We did not sell the investors on the idea that this was going to be the next Amazon. This is a Denver treasure.”
Pearson and co-investor David Back, who will help him run the store under their Bended Page LLC, say their love for the store goes back to their childhoods.
“Kwame and I are both Denver natives and grew up loving The Tattered Cover,” Back told The Denver Post. “My first job was being a cashier at the Cherry Creek location in 2000. I used to daydream about what I would do if I owned it.”
But calling your bookstore Black-owned isn’t just about skin color, Black booksellers say, especially when many of the new owners hail from the world of venture capital. (Pearson formerly worked as an advisor at Bain & Company.)
It’s about commitment to anti-racist principals, serving the Black community, and the work involved in maintaining those principals. Without having put in that work, the “largest Black-owned book store in the U.S.” claim is meaningless, critics say.
“The big win here is if we can get some support around BIPOC artists and writers in Denver,” said Rick Griffith, co-owner of Matter, a Black- and woman-owned bookstore and print shop in Denver. “The rest is just commerce.”
Pleading for patience
Griffith, a longtime Denver artist and cultural leader, said he was not personally offended by the claim, and in fact is enthusiastic about collaborating with Pearson and his knowledgeable staff when the time comes. Griffith was among several people who Pearson reached out to by phone last week to discuss a way forward through the controversy.
“David and I are two individuals,” Pearson said. “We are not systemic investors. We don’t have numerous businesses we are running and flipping. We just wanted to save the Tattered Cover, But unfortunately, I’m not rich, so I couldn’t just write that check myself.”
Instead, he went to members of the literary world (the investment group includes former publishers and literary academics) along with local heavy-hitters to sell them on his vision of a revived Tattered Cover. He doesn’t deny that the store will be a private business with a bottom line.
For people like Griffith, that bottom line is merely the starting point.
“They arrived at this marketing-positioning statement with the assumption that they had something to gain by it, which is what venture capital organizations tend to do,” said Griffith. “If they want to do that, I’m not a victim of it. I think the timing of it is more controversial than anything. But some of the investors, like the owner of the Colorado Rockies (Dick Monfort), are single bottom-line thinkers all the way down. They’re cattle barons.”
Griffith admits that the last few months of controversy have forced some people into a state of binary thinking — “I’ll either love or hate the Tattered Cover, with nothing in between” — and that time will soften that approach. But he agreed with national Black booksellers and local cultural leaders that being a “Black-owned” book store means something larger and more important beyond the skin color of its CEO.
“I’m totally proud to talk about being a Black-owned book store. But I also understand that at the end of the day, if I don’t run it in a way that’s inclusive to everyone — that features diverse authors and other small businesses in the community, that’s collaborative — then they’re right. It’s all fluff.”
Candi CdeBaca, the Denver city councilwoman whose District 9 includes the Tattered Cover, is optimistic about the sale but eager to hold its new owners to their statements.
“He’s got the right tools at his fingertips to pull this off,” CdeBaca said of Pearson. “He’s from here, he went to East High School, and the people I know who know him said he values Black lives. But I’m watching and waiting to see if he uses (those tools) to lift up his people. There’s always the potential this is about exploiting this moment in time for profit, and that the Black-owned statement never actually affects the Black community.”
“The best part of it,” she added, “is that we get to hold him accountable through our patronage. If he speaks to us, the Tattered Cover will again be a community treasure. If not, he’s going to face the same challenges the previous owners faced.”
The next chapter
Nothing Pearson or his partners have put out there contradicts that so far, he said.
“I do understand that there is an obligation when saying that,” he said. “But the first thing to remember is that Black-owned is Black-owned. I’m a Black male. That’s my existence and how I was raised. That’s an important piece of this. I want to be an advocate for social justice. I want people to understand Black Lives Matter.”
The timing isn’t just controversial, it’s also crucial, Griffith said. If the Tattered Cover’s new ownership doesn’t start out on this path, they won’t follow it in the future.
“If you can’t convince someone to do the right thing at the point that they enter into a community, they’ll always take those communities for granted,” he said. “It’s the cost of entry that makes those relationships so sticky and powerful.”
Some Denverites are ready to move on, however, including Colorado poet laureate LeFebre.
“We need to stop begging these institutions and systems and holders of capital to let us in,” he said. “I’m not interested in fighting for equality in these spaces that are by nature marginalizing us. I don’t want to fight for a spot at a table that by default is excluding someone like me. Context and nuance matter deeply in this conversation.”
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