Independent bookstores here to stay

Shops offer out-of-print texts, bring character to shopping experience


Heidi Herman scanned through the children’s book section at the Littleton branch of Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore, while her son, Maddox, 10, sat on the floor flipping through a book about LEGOs.

When they go to a bookstore, the Littleton family said, it’s Tattered Cover.

“I like the small feel,” Herman said, “and we’re pretty big on supporting local businesses.”

When Amazon burst onto the scene in the 1990s and as digital books grew in popularity, speculation swirled that the death of independent bookstores like Tattered Cover and reading as people knew it was imminent.

That belief has since been, mostly, debunked. Independent bookstores are still here. They’re still selling hard copies of texts across genres. And they have a loyal customer base, owners say.

Still, there’s no doubt that models like Amazon’s or of large retailers such as Barnes & Noble affected business for independent bookstores, say indie shop owners in the Denver metro area, both in the used and new book industries.

And Amazon has begun delving into the brick-and-mortar side of retail in recent years, including the announcement it will open a store in Lone Tree at Park Meadows mall in the near future.

Personal touch sets indies apart

Len Vlahos, co-owner of Tattered Cover Bookstore, said he isn’t worried about competition from Amazon or the future of independents, a sentiment echoed by other shop owners.

What keeps independent bookstores going, he points out, is the customer service, the personal touch of selling items that customers might not find at a corporate-run store relying on the New York Times best-seller list.

“I’ve been in one of the Amazon stores,” Vlahos said. “It’s a different model. How they display books, how they price books.”

Tattered Cover started in Denver in 1971 but today has grown to five locations and holds more than 500 events annually. The business may be larger than many independent bookstores, but it focuses on most of the core values driving shops of all sizes, Vlahos said.

“We’re rooted in the Denver community,” he said. “Our buyers who buy books for the stores live in and around Denver.”

Their selection of books also differs by location and aims to cater to each demographic. Buyers at the Aspen Grove shopping center in Littleton, for example, may look to different products than those on Colfax, Vlahos said.

There’s also the warm cup of coffee, the comfortable couch that begs you to stay and special events for people of all ages.

Jim Norris is the co-owner of Mutiny Information Café on South Broadway in Denver, which has operated as a bookstore for about 30 years, under different names and owners.

He believes Amazon is “counterproductive to the community spirit” of independent bookstores and that large chain stores don’t have the same character as indies, he said.

“They’re deliberately made to be generic, so they’re easy to go in and out of,” he said.

Mutiny is “super eclectic,” and a space where shoppers can find comics, used books, vinyl records and visit the in-house coffee bar. Essentially, Norris said, it’s a “pop culture playground.”

Holly Brooks has owned Capitol Hill Books since 2005, but like Mutiny, the shop has sat in its corner store location across from the state Capitol for decades, she said. Brooks is the third owner.

“Frankly, most books are out of print,” she said. “The publishers have all shrunk down and consolidated and they can’t afford to publish something that’s not a best-seller.”

When a book is no longer published, that’s where independent used bookstores come into the picture, Brooks said, offering recycled copies not available elsewhere.

At least once a week, she said, and including the morning she spoke to Colorado Community Media, Brooks gets a call from one of Tattered Cover’s locations asking if they have a book a customer of theirs can’t find.

Here to stay

Brooks and Norris took over their respective stores from past owners with a mission to keep the shops going.

“You can’t see a store like this close,” Brooks said. “It’s just wrong.”

Despite 37 years under the store’s belt, Brooks said, she still gets the Amazon/internet questions on occasion.

“People ask me frequently if the internet is hurting us,” Brooks said.

Shop owners have responded to Amazon differently. Capitol Hill Books sells online through the site.

“It’s that extra little bit that can make the difference,” she said of the profit, which helps them stay open and remain the “neighborhood used bookstore.”

Norris said Mutiny doesn’t work with the company.

“I just don’t see a need to feed the beast,” he said.

Either way, independent bookstores say they’re here to stay, whatever the next challenge may be.

“That’s where you’re going to find the real treasures,” Norris said. “It’s not just corporate prints, it’s not just best-sellers. It’s those weird, obscure books.”


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