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    What does it mean that Barnes & Noble is buying Denver indie Tattered Cover?

    Drew Broussard

    June 18, 2024, 2:02pm

    After several tumultuous years, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore. Denverite reports that the troubled local chain (TC has six stores in the Denver area) accepted a $1.8 million offer from Barnes & Noble that would keep all of the stores open under the Tattered Cover name and keep their staffs employed. The sale will be finalized later this summer.

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    To misquote the Bard: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, ’tis hard for a bookseller to reconcile.”

    There are definitely things worth celebrating here, chief among them that a bunch of booksellers—hard-working, brilliant, always-underpaid booksellers—will get to keep their jobs. And despite the store’s disastrous past five years, which were largely spent running from one self-inflicted wound to another, the death of Tattered Cover would have left a massive hole in the Denver literary scene. But not all bookstores are created equal and Barnes & Noble deciding to muscle into the indie space in this way is a chilling reminder of the dark-old-days when B&N was the bad guy.

    In the ’90s and early ’00s, Barnes & Noble (and its corporate brethren like Borders) were muscling out indie bookstores whenever and wherever they had the chance. You’ve Got Mail, the classic tale of indie booksellers triumphing over capitalist greed (okay I guess it is also a love story), was partly inspired by B&N’s arrival on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the company’s predatory tactics generally helped clear the field just in time for Amazon to swoop in and put the entire bookselling industry in danger.

    But as the New York Times put it in 2022: “Today, virtually the entire publishing industry is rooting for Barnes & Noble—including most independent booksellers.” The change in tune was, yes, rooted in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend response to the existential threat that is Amazon—but it was also led by James Daunt, who saved Waterstones in the UK from bankruptcy in the early 2010s and then swooped in to do the same with B&N in 2019 and has spent the intervening five years waging a fervent PR campaign to convince us that B&N is our friend after all.

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    Daunt, who founded one of London’s most notable bookstores under his own name in the ’90s, has prioritized the bookselling part of owning a bookstore chain and much ink has been spilled over his decision to let B&N stores run themselves more like indies. Which is all well and good! I think Daunt is good at his job and I like Waterstones, and Daunt Booksellers, and even some of the new/newly-refreshed Barnes & Noble stores. And there are plenty of places around the country whose only access to a bookstore comes via a Barnes & Noble. But whether one of the Daunt-run bookstores is taking orders from the corporate office or running their own inventory, they’re still a corporate entity—and the distinction between B&N and indie bookstore is an important one to maintain.

    Assuming that the sale goes through, Tattered Cover will no longer be an independent bookstore. Even if everything about the chain—the decor, the staff, the bookmarks—remains the same, the incontrovertible fact will remain that they are now owned by a corporate conglomerate whose recent past was dedicated to running indie bookstores out of business. This kind of consolidation might seem innocuous on the surface but even if it remains that way, it is speeding up our slide towards mono-culture. It’s a damn shame that Tattered Cover was misled by two successive generations of owners following the retirement of longtime owner Joyce Meskis in 2015 and perhaps the store’s closure would have led to a new crop of indies sprouting up like new growth after a cleansing forest fire—but I fear that wouldn’t have been the case. And so booksellers and indie bookstore lovers are left to celebrate this small victory while watching ever-more-warily the wolf who we’ve made common cause with, in the hopes that it won’t turn and gobble us up next.

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