Bookseller Who Defended Readers’ Rights, Joyce Meskis Dies At 80!
The Denver-based Tattered Cover Book Store’s owner, Joyce Meskis, was honored with a PEN American Center award in 1995 in recognition of her work favoring freedom of speech and expression by author A.E. Hotchner.
At the awards event, he noted that there were readers in addition to writers, editors, and publishers in the room. We all lose if this woman fails. Without the bookseller’s ability to sell us, we don’t exist.
And that was before Ms. Meskis took the matter to the Colorado Supreme Court to keep the identity of one of her clients’ purchases from law authorities.
The National Coalition Against Censorship reported that Ms. Meskis, who turned the Tattered Cover into one of the best independent bookshops in the nation, passed away on December 22 in Denver. She was 80 years old. She was said to have passed away at home without a cause in a statement on the Tattered Cover website.
In addition to founding a bookstore renowned for its wide range and welcoming environment for bibliophiles, Ms. Meskis frequently advocated for the First Amendment and stood up against censorship. These positions weren’t always simple to adopt.
She testified against the Pornography Victims Compensation Act in 1991, for example, when she was the president of the American Booksellers Association. The bill had been proposed by Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. It would have allowed victims of sex crimes to sue distributors of pornography, such as bookstores if they could show that the pornographic material had influenced their attacker. The bill’s opponents were occasionally referred to as being in favor of pornography. Still, Ms. Meskis realized the actual problem was that the law would make booksellers afraid of carrying anything controversial.
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Similarly, she was up against law enforcement in the case she brought before the Colorado Supreme Court some twenty years ago as they worked to establish evidence against a client suspected of producing methamphetamine. In a trailer house used as a meth lab in 2000, the police discovered two books on drug production. They also found an envelope with Ms. Meskis’s bookstore marked as the return address.
They looked for Ms. Meskis’ sales records to connect the drug-making to the person whose name was on the envelope; nevertheless, she once more recognized the more incredible picture, despite some people seeing her position as pro-drug.
In 2000, she stated to The New York Times, “This is about access to private records of the book-buying public.” “Buyers’ decisions to purchase and read would be influenced if they believed that the government might obtain their records.”
The Colorado Constitution and the First Amendment both “protect an individual’s fundamental right to purchase books anonymously, free from state intervention,” according to a 2002 decision by the State Supreme Court.
Owning a bookstore meant more to Ms. Meskis than merely making money.
She stated in 1992 that she believed bookshops had their version of the Hippocratic oath to uphold the First Amendment’s health and safety.
On March 12, 1942, Joyce Ann Meskis was born in East Chicago, Indiana. Her mother, Helen (Dickus) Meskis, was a nurse, and her father, John, worked for a dairy company before moving on to a biscuit company. Ms. Meskis attended Purdue University, intending to become a teacher.
In her words to Publishers Weekly in 2009, “I pictured myself kicking the fall leaves on a campus as I strolled to my fine but not an extravagant house, whose French doors would be open and I could hear the strains of my children playing Chopin.”
But while still in college, she changed her passion by working in libraries, particularly at the Purdue bookstore. She ran a bookstore in Parker, Colorado, a town close to Denver, for a while before purchasing the Tattered Cover in 1974. The store relocated several times. 200 customers came to help transfer books when it relocated in 1986 to a four-story building in Denver’s Cherry Creek area.
In 1991, Ms. Meskis told The Christian Science Monitor, “I felt it would be arrogant of us to put up a sign-up sheet for the transfer, but people asked to help.” She quickly added more places. Customers were welcome to relax in lounge chairs and browse the goods for a short while or several hours.
The Tattered Cover Book Store, which many individuals in the book industry regard as the best general bookstore in the United States, is one thing that Denver possesses that no other city does, according to a 1989 article in The Times.
Ms. Meskis has fought numerous battles over the years, including leading the opposition to a proposal that would have altered the Colorado Constitution and given the state’s 300 towns the authority to define obscenity however they saw fit. In 1994, voters rejected the proposal.
Her positions didn’t necessarily involve legal disputes and restrictions from the government. She committed market Salman Rushdie‘s “The Satanic Verses” despite threats she received over the phone in the late 1980s.
Ms. Meskis reached an agreement to sell her company in 2015 (it was sold again in 2020), and in 2017 she officially retired. The number of survivors was not immediately known. If Ms. Meskis received praise for her First Amendment positions, she did so reluctantly.
She said the oft-quoted phrase, “Trouble finds us, we don’t go looking for it,” to Publishers Weekly. “There will always be problems when you live in a broad society. Several things surprised me. I wasn’t prepared for so many legal cases. It would help if you took the necessary action.