Print

"The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community." -A. David Schwartz

We all remember Monica and Bill and their clandestine affair in the Oval Office. The Republican-controlled Congress went on a feeding frenzy when they saw an opportunity to attack President Clinton's character for his dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The prize they sought was impeachment and its allied publicity. Kenneth Starr became the Special Prosecutor charged with overseeing the witch hunt. Before long, a bookseller was drawn into the fray.

Kramer Books, one of the nation's finest independent bookstores, had sold Monica Lewinsky some books, and Starr wanted to know what they were. Could they be linked to her involvement with Clinton? Kramer Books was threatened with a subpoena for Lewinsky's personal shopping information, but owner Bill Kramer refused to divulge what she had bought in his Washington, D. C. store. Before things came to a head, Starr opted for an alternate strategy -- immunity for Lewinsky if she would testify about her entanglement with the president -- and in exchange, she provided the details about her purchases from Kramer Books. That took the bookseller off the hook, but two things had become clear: The bookseller had high principles when the privacy of his customers' shopping choices was concerned, and his resistance demonstrated his commitment to defending the right of free speech (and reading) as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.

After 9/11 and passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the George W. Bush-White House sanctioned telephone wire taps and Internet searches on many ordinary Americans, bypassing standard procedures that would have required search warrants justified by demonstrations of probable cause. The broad sweep of these activities amounted to fishing expeditions with a huge net. In one egregious case, the FBI tried to secure the book purchasing records of thousands of customers of Amazon.com in Ohio. The FBI claimed that they had bought illegal pornographic videos. Like Kramer Books, Amazon.com resisted. There has been a scattering of other First Amendment cases involving booksellers and libraries around the country, but always touching on the same issue and problem: If law enforcement agencies believe that the public good is threatened in some demonstrable way, then shouldn't they have the right to secure any information that might lead to a prosecution? And, on the other side of the same coin, if the First Amendment protects a citizen's right to free speech, and if that right, over years of judicial decisions, has been interpreted to include the right to privacy about what we read, view or listen to, then why must anyone -- a private citizen, a library, a bookstore -- turn over information about purchases or borrowings of books, videos, and the like?

Focal Point

In another case, local authorities in Adams County, Colorado, suspected that there were methamphetamine labs producing illicit drugs within their jurisdiction. They focused on a particular alleged operator, Chris Montoya. A search at his mobile home in a trailer park turned up books about building a meth lab as well as an empty book shipping envelope from the Tattered Cover Bookstore, in Denver. The North Metro Drug Task Force commander, Lt. Lori Moriarty, had reason to believe her team was well on its way toward assembling sufficient evidence to start a prosecution, and it seemed to her that securing evidence from the bookseller about the purchase of those meth lab- building books, and maybe other drug-related books, could only help her case. No one argued that methamphetamine labs were a good idea. Justice and the protection of the public welfare appeared to be squarely on Moriarty's side.

That is, until she met Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover. The police came to the bookstore, confronted an employee, and demanded Montoya's purchase records. The employee refused to cooperate and took the investigators to Meskis. At that moment, a two-year long arm wrestling match began -- a protracted legal battle climaxing in a landmark Colorado Supreme Court decision concerning the right to privacy of any bookstore customer. Meskis became a local and national hero (she already had high status in the bookselling field), for defending the First Amendment right to free speech -- which in this instance meant free, unfettered, private reading.

The bookseller -- the Tattered Cover -- however also incurred the wrath of those who believed the cops should have this information. In this way (with start-up help from Monica Lewinsky) Joyce Meskis, local bookseller, got caught up in the swirl of debate about national values and principles. Bookselling is a business, to be sure, but this occupation also can induce a bookseller to become a political philosopher. It can put the bookseller at great legal and financial and even bodily risk, since refusal to honor a subpoena may lead to jail time.

The Tattered Cover Empire

If the independent bookstores in America were arranged in a pyramid of retailing success and customer service or literary programming complexity, Tattered Cover would be at or very near the top. Since 1974 when Joyce Meskis bought the business, there have been various locations and realignments. Each time the direction was "growth." When I met Meskis in June 2008, the Tattered Cover empire consisted of three impressively large stores. The anchor was the historic lower downtown (LoDo) store, a comfortable two- story building with nooks and corners and antique furniture encouraging browsing and the site of many readings, autographings, and literary events throughout the year, boasting a cozy coffee shop and extensive newsstand. The store feels like a large department store devoted entirely to reading.

Under the same name are the Colfax Avenue store, also with 150,000 books, and a smaller, suburban Highlands Ranch store. All three locations are inviting and maintain large inventories, and offer a great deal of service to their communities.

A Bookseller Standing on Principle

It's no surprise that, in 2008, Joyce Meskis became Director of the University of Denver's "Summer Publishing Institute." The university recognized that Meskis's reputation as a bookseller and her skills as an administrator would attract top rank teachers to the program. The walls of her office are covered with awards garnered by her bookstores or by her. She has won the (former U. S. Supreme Court Justice) William J. Brennan Award for the Protection of Free Expression; the PEN/Newman Award; the Privacy International Brandeis Award; the American Library Association (ALA) Freedom of Expression Award; the Authors Guild of America Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community; and a long list of other honors. Although she is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, with a gentle sense of humor, she is not somebody that the police, or those who want to restrict or censor the public's right to read, should want to lock horns with.

She is a past president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and has been an active leader in its Freedom of Expression Foundation. Prior to the day in 2002 when police approached her to demand customer sales records, Meskis had already paid her dues in the battle to protect free speech. In fact, Meskis believes that the never-ending pattern of efforts by one interest group or another to "ban" or discourage the reading and selling of specific titles is a major the problem in the free speech area. For example, Tattered Cover, like other bookstores, encountered threatening resistance when it decided to sell Salmon Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses (1988), which offended some conservative Muslims.

The bookstore also took heat from the gun control lobby when it decided to sell copies of God, Guns & Rock 'N' Roll (2000), by Ted Nugent, the rock star, which made comments about guns, children, and the Columbine (Colorado) High School shootings that offended survivors and those who favor stricter gun control. Some vocal customers wanted the Tattered Cover to ban the book. They boycotted the store and campaigned against it in the media. There were raw emotions around this issue. Parents, teenagers, teachers, booksellers, newspaper editorial writers all went to the mat. True to form, Joyce Meskis, bookseller, refused to ban the book. She has a personal policy about these radioactive books: She does not read them herself.

It's a way to try to stay neutral, to keep herself philosophically distant. But a Tattered Cover manager did read Nugent's book, found some value in it, and concluded that, on some level, Ted Nugent was a good parent. Joyce Meskis believed the protesting parent (the leader of the boycott) had not read the book. So, Tattered Cover gave him one; he read it-and soon cancelled the boycott and picket lines. His wife then brought a critical letter to Nugent at the book signing at the Tattered Cover; a long conversation ensued, and another one later on. The parties may have disagreed, but at least they were talking to one another. This one case illustrates a general point about Tattered Cover's role in the surrounding culture or society: The bookseller is a facilitator of community dialogue, not a final arbiter about what anyone should believe. And yet, fostering dialogue -- in lieu of unproductive confrontation -- represents advocacy of a "position" in itself, the position being forbearance.

Joyce Meskis wants to be sensitive to the objections of those who complain; she recognizes that we are in a complex society and we don't all think alike. "But, the store should be open minded to the needs of all customers." Meskis cited a quick, perhaps obvious example: She is glad to stock books by both (Republican) Newt Gingrich and (Democratic) Hillary Clinton. Not all booksellers operate with such an open mind.

To those who believe a bookstore should stock items selectively, screening out controversial viewpoints or potentially inflammatory material, Meskis replies that she holds a "deep respect for the police, but First Amendment rights trump everything." And, "By offering [a] diversity of materials and author events without prejudice [her italics], we are protecting the rights of each one of us. Without prejudice means that we do not let our own personal bias against an author's work, or the bias of any individual or group, affect a decision as to whether we stock a book or host a signing. We have had pressure come in many forms, from financial boycott to the threat of physical harm as was the case with the publication of Salmon Rushdie's book some years ago. Yet we cannot abrogate our responsibility to the First Amendment, which we believe to be the cornerstone of our democratic tradition and of our bookstore."

Meskis, however, is not a Pollyanna or a moral relativist. She does not think that all ideas are of equal value. Some ideas, she knows, are positively harmful. "We understand that words and ideas can be powerful. We also know that in varying degrees they can edify, inform, insult, or incur the wrath of the reader . But the cure for a bad idea is not to censor it, because in so doing, it will never go away. The cure is to speak about it, debate it, and gain strength in the wisdom that comes out of the discussion." (Meskis "To Our Customers: A Statement and a Promise")

The Legal Knot

Lt. Moriarty had a warrant issued that she thought would suffice to force the bookseller to open its records concerning the suspect, Montoya. But Tattered Cover's Joyce Meskis, and her team of attorneys took swift action to resist the "invasion" by seeking a restraining order. "Although many people aren't aware of it, in the eyes of the law buying a book is different from buying a bicycle or a pack of cigarettes. Through the years, the protections accorded materials covered by the First Amendment, such as books and newspapers, have evolved to protect the institutions that provide those materials as well." Still, the police thought their case should move forward expeditiously. Everything pointed to Montoya's culpability and for the other suspects connected to him.

A key piece of this evidence was an "...empty Tattered Cover shipping envelope addressed to one of the suspects [found] in an outside trashcan, and two nearly new books, Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture, by Uncle Fester [pseud.], and The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories, by Jack B. Nimble [pseud.] inside the trailer." Presumably these books were purchased by Montoya, and sales records at the bookstore would prove it, or so the police believed.

Legal challenges on both sides proceeded as if in a hard fought chess match. In spite of the cost of an attorney, Meskis never wavered from her principles. Luckily, some financial support for the store's legal battle came from outside as the case escalated from county court to state court, from the lower levels to the Colorado Supreme Court. Two years later, in April 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court handed down its decision. The ruling -- the first of its kind to reach this high a level in the judicial system -- went well beyond the specifics of the Tattered Cover case. Justice Bender wrote, "We recognize that both the United States and Colorado constitutions protect an individual's fundamental right to purchase books anonymously, free from governmental interference. Bookstores are places where a citizen can explore ideas, receive information, and discover the myriad perspectives on every topic imaginable. When a person buys a book at a bookstore, he engages in activity protected by the First Amendment because he is exercising his right to read and receive ideas and information."

In its own commentary on the court's ruling, Tattered Cover noted, "...the Court further held that in the future, anytime the government seeks to obtain such records, the bookstore must be afforded a due process hearing in advance where a court will determine whether law enforcement officials have a sufficiently compelling need for the information." The operative word here was "compelling." Justice Bender also wrote, "Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation -- and their ideas from suppression -- at the hand of an intolerant society...."

Through all the legal wrangling, the question of what books Montoya might actually have purchased at the Tattered Cover remained unanswered. Joyce Meskis just would not say. But when the dust settled, when the court's decision was finally handed down, and when a documentary film about the legal battle had been released, then there was a public event for an airing of views. Joyce Meskis and Lt. Moriarty were both in attendance, and, finally, the secret was revealed. What was the allegedly incriminating book all about? Building a meth lab? Hardly. Instead, it "...was about Japanese calligraphy -- it was not, as police had suspected, a 'how-to' manual for making methamphetamine." The police responded to the embarrassing revelation by saying that they need to pursue any and all evidence; the bookstore's supporters liked a different interpretation -- that the police had simply been barking up the wrong tree.

"[Tattered Cover attorney] Recht noted that Meskis could easily have disclosed that information to police because it didn't incriminate Montoya -- who since has been convicted on an unrelated drug charge. Instead, he said, 'she did the right thing and fought the case independent of what book was being sought....' 'For us, it was always about the constitutional issue,' Meskis added. Moriarty said she still would pursue the purchasing records if she had to investigate the case all over again. 'As passionate as Joyce Meskis is about protecting the First Amendment, we're as passionate about protecting the community,' she said."

And so the debate ended right where it had started. The Tattered Cover and Joyce Meskis had won the arm wrestling match and through the courts had helped to establish a clearer definition of a book purchaser's right to privacy and a bookseller's obligation to protect that right (now police or the courts, in Colorado, anyway, must show a compelling need for the suspected information) but the "authorities" would continue to argue that those protecting "the public good" should somehow, nonetheless, have the option to pry open the doors on an individual's privacy.

The Tattered Cover as Beacon

The Tattered Cover represents an arbitration of taste. With room for approximately 150,000 titles, this bookseller can afford to stock many books on a given subject of varying quality and distinctly different viewpoints (or books written in different voices or styles). The reader can decide for himself what is important, valuable, or respectable; or, conversely, what is trivial, valueless, or unworthy of respect (perhaps offensive or even dangerous). The bookseller posits a philosophical and political position characterized by radical curiosity and freedom, but the bookstore does not try to prescribe what any customer should do with this freedom to buy and read anything he wants. Meskis says that: "...we will never proselytize nor will we ever censor any reading matter that you may seek." (Meskis, "To Our Customers: A Statement and a Promise")

This idea of radical openness unnerves some customers and some other arbiters of taste and has led the Tattered Cover into conflicts that other booksellers would just as soon avoid. But Tattered Cover is well prepared. Meskis conducts extensive interviews with all new prospective hires, including questions about attitudes toward censorship and First Amendment issues. "What will push your buttons?" is what Meskis wants to know about anyone proposing to work for her. She tests all staff, including backroom people, not just book buyers and salespeople. Joyce Meskis is prepared, herself, to go to the barricades when necessary. A gentle lady she is, but a lion in sheep's clothing as well. At the end of the day, no book, even a guide to writing calligraphy, is an innocuous purchase at the Tattered Cover.

This article is taken from chapter 11 in a forthcoming book on and titled AMERICAN BOOKSTORES. David Emblidge is associate professor of Writing, Literature and Publishing in Emerson College. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..