ONE of Denver's main attractions is a bookstore. The Tattered Cover may be one of the largest independently owned bookstores in the United States, but it's run like a family concern. It carries well over 500,000 titles on its shelves and 137,000 more in its active files. It rises four stories on a corner of an upper-crust shopping district and will soon expand to a fifth floor - covering 40,000 square feet of hunter-green-carpeted retail space. The atmosphere, however, is adamantly kind, bustling, efficient, and welcoming. It's the sort of place families go to for an outing, and despite its location it attracts customers from all walks of life. Owner Joyce Meskis says most bookstores tend to be intimidating places. ``We try to project an image of a well-worn, well-made carpet slipper. We're after an at-home atmosphere,'' she says as we sit in her newly acquired office space above the store.
For most customers the principal attraction is the huge selection - everything from the whole five-volume set of Thomas Aquinas's ``Summa Theologica'' to current bestsellers. Prof. Thomas Clark of the University of Colorado at Denver's Urban and Regional Planning department says, ``In my view, it is one of the best bookstores in the country. It offers an environment conducive to browsing. You go for one book and end up finding areas of opportunity you didn't know existed. They have such a wide variety and they include so many small-scale publishers. They highlight new authors and have such elaborate categorizations that it's more like a library than a bookstore.''
Comfortable armchairs are strategically placed in every section of the store. Thomas Wolfe, Rocky Mountain News entertainment editor, says, ``The interesting phenomenon to me is that the Tattered Cover has made reading books cool. It's a Sunday event. If I go at opening time on Sunday, I find people waiting at the door to get in and get the good chairs. They've also helped to teach children to value books again.''
The Tattered Cover is almost an anomaly today - a business built on trust. Anyone can open an account without going through a credit reference. Employees can give themselves cash advances out of the register simply by filling out a form. They are made responsible for a certain number of hours of work each week but may trade hours with other employees anyway they like: Controlling time clocks don't exist and overtime is welcome.
Those who work there are treated so well that despite the low pay scale (similar to other retail stores) loyalty runs high. As John Osburn, a former employee and now a graduate student at New York University, puts it, ``It's a temptation to want to stay there the rest of your life because it's so comfortable. The personnel are by-in-large highly educated. In general, the store encourages you to be yourself. Joyce removes the sense that you are a slave.''
Employees are not the only ones loyal to the store and to Ms. Meskis. Both times the Tattered Cover needed to move to a larger location after Meskis purchased it in 1974, customers volunteered to help with the move. Two hundred showed up to move books into the store's present location.
``I thought it would be presumptuous for us to put up a sign-up sheet for the move,'' Meskis remarks, ``but people asked to help. Our readers have a special feeling of personal ownership - as well they should.''
The size of the inventory and the store itself impresses a daily stream of visitors. Why so well-equipped a store developed in a city the size of Denver can be explained in various ways. Denver ranks third highest among US cities in college-educated citizens. Cultural options are limited: People here read a lot.
But the main reason the Tattered Cover has flourished in Denver is that Joyce Meskis wanted to live here. ``I think it would have succeeded in a number of towns because the basic formula is that the customer is always right,'' Mr. Osburn says. ``They actually mean it, and they go to all kinds of lengths to prove it. It's such a phenomenon that she sticks to her policy of trust - even when occasionally that trust is betrayed.''
``I guess I believe it [is so successful] because we care so much about what we do,'' Meskis says. ``We are very service oriented. We'll order any book, even those not profitable to order, because it's an important service. One of our customers collects books on Korean pottery and Japanese screens, and [the buyer] watches all the publishers' lists for him.''
The success of the Tattered Cover and other large bookstores may indicate a trend. Barnes and Noble has recently opened a 15,000-square-foot store in Minneapolis that carries 150,000 titles and is decorated with hunter-green carpeting, wooden bookshelves, and comfortable chairs. It, too, promotes local presses.
Waldenbooks has recently expanded three bookstores to cover 9,000 square feet and 45,000 titles each. Spokesperson Susan Arnold says that the new, larger stores are definitely a trend, and Waldenbooks plans to revamp many more of its smaller stores to feature broader selection, wide aisles, and comfortable seating.
But whether the chains are interested or able to duplicate the Tattered Cover's at-home, service-oriented atmosphere is another question. Sales people at the Tattered Cover are abundant and quick to ask if help is needed, and when it isn't, they leave the customer alone to browse, Osburn says. Employees are trained to offer advice only when it's asked for and to avoid saying anything that might be construed as judgmental of someone's reading habits.
Still, most employees are well-educated, well-read, and primed and eager to offer suggestions in their own departments. Beth Simons, who works in fiction, says, ``I live to recommend books.''
In all, Meskis employs 310 people, ranging in age from 17 to well over 70. Sales clerks all go through a two-week intensive training period and then continue to train in their individual departments for as long as they stay at the store. There are 50,000 new book titles produced in the US each year, and it's a job just to keep up with what's new.
Sales people dress as they like, come from a wide variety of backgrounds, deliberately chosen to be different from one another to reflect the diverse public they serve.
``We have a three-pocketed staff,'' Meskis explains. In the first group are college students who work around the calendar. The second group consists of people roughly ages 25 to 35 who are between careers or just out of college. ``Lifers'' make up the third group, Meskis says. ``Sometimes they're hired away from us into publishing,'' she adds.
Meskis plows back into the business as much money as she can. Since she is the sole shareholder, she doesn't consider the profit margin in the same way a corporate chain does. But the book business is labor-intensive and therefore expensive. The profit margin is only about 1 to 5 percent. The Tattered Cover's average turnover rate is 4.5 - every title is sold 4 1/2 times each year. Some books sell only once a year, but sales volume is not everything. If the book is important to round out a section, it's kept on the shelf. And the book that sells eight times a year supports it.
Because Meskis loves maps, the Tattered Cover offers a well-equipped map and globe section that is popular with customers. Another special-needs area is the large books-on-tape section. ``People want to make better use of the time spent in traffic or running in the morning,'' Meskis says. ``Books-on-tape do not discourage reading, they support it.''
Meskis's involvement of the Tattered Cover in a variety of community activities contributes to the store's distinctive character. She hired Katrina Etter four years ago to coordinate special events, all free: from an annual children's festival to a ``Bach Among the Books'' chamber music series.``I consider the store a real resource for the community,'' Etter says.