Chain Store Massacre In Bookland?

Annette Caplan, 84, sits on an old church pew, smiling over the Treasury of Jewish Humor. "I think I'll buy this so I can have a chuckle. Why shouldn't I treat myself?" she asks, surveying the store she says is a home away from home.

"Coming here is a habit I've developed over many years. When I'm lonely, there's someone to talk to. I bring guests or come here when I'm down. Always, there's warmth. This bookstore is a source of comfort," she says.

No, this isn't just any bookstore. It's the Tattered Cover, and that warm feeling is intentional. "We try to give people service and an extended collection of offerings in a nonthreatening atmosphere. People look at it as a hideaway," says owner Joyce Meskis.

Despite its sprawl--four floors of 600,000 books with 225,000 titles--the 50,000-square-foot Tattered Cover is indeed a hospitable oasis, filled with cozy nooks and crannies, worn tables, and old velvet sofas. "The Tattered Cover is more comfortable than a library and has a better selection. The people are much friendlier," says Denver bookkeeper Stephanie A. Herrington. Those were the reasons I held parties there when three of my books were published.

"It's on my visit list," adds her mother, Wanda K. Cooper, who lives in Irving, Tex. It's on a lot of other people's lists, too. When a Texas friend was diagnosed with cancer, Cooper says, "to get herself together, she came here and bought a bunch of books, then went to the mountains."

NEW VELVET. There are a lot of stories like that about the Tattered Cover. So the bookstore ought to have it made. But it doesn't. Supermarkets and warehouse clubs such as Sam's Wholesale Club are undercutting sales with low-price best-sellers. Even more threatening are book superstores run by Barnes & Noble, Border, Crown, and others, which Tattered Cover's customers believe are designed to look like their favorite store and which are luring away customers with discount prices.

Nationally, 500 superstores have opened in the past five years, driving some venerable establishments out of business. Last May, the American Booksellers Assn., which represents 4,500 independents, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia against five publishers, charging they violated antitrust laws by giving preferential terms and price breaks to chains and warehouse clubs. Unit sales in independent bookstores dropped to 25% of all books sold in 1993 (1994 figures are not available) from 32% in 1992, says the ABA.

Denver is a prime target. B&N has opened six outlets in the area, including a 35,000-square-foot store stocked with 125,000 titles that opened last fall less than two miles from the Tattered Cover. The B&N outpost has comfortable armchairs and deep green carpeting--like the Tattered Cover. But Stephen Riggio, Barnes & Noble Inc.'s executive vice-president, 2,000 miles away at corporate headquarters in New York, denies he cloned the Tattered Cover. As for trying to drive it out of business, he says that's unlikely: "They're one of the greatest bookstores in the world." He argues that B&N is actually expanding the book market beyond the carriage trade.

The Tattered Cover isn't so confident of its future, however. "These are difficult times," says Meskis, who fought a skirmish with book chains a decade ago after B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Dayton Hudson's Pickwick Discount Books opened in Denver. But they were thinly stocked, mostly with best-sellers, and their vinyl floors and harsh lights made them less than enticing.

Now, it's a real book war, and to fight back, Meskis has extended hours, added a coffee bar, and opened a 7,500-square-foot satellite store in downtown Denver. Next month, she'll open a restaurant atop the flagship store, which is adjacent to Denver's elegant Cherry Creek Shopping Center. So far, however, Meskis refuses to discount. For one thing, she doesn't have the purchasing clout of the chains. More important, discounting would force a cutback in service, which has been the Tattered Cover's byword since the 52-year-old Meskis purchased a 950-square-foot neighborhood shop in 1974. She occupied the current location, once a woman's specialty store, in 1986.

"Joyce knows about books and makes sure her staff does, too," says Glenn Giffin, the Denver Post's book editor. Indeed, I asked a Tattered Cover employee for a novel recommended by a friend. "It's about New York in 1840, used to be on the best-seller list, and starts with an A," I said sheepishly. Without batting an eye, she reached for The Alienist, set in 1896.

While part of Barnes & Noble's formula seems to be to clone the bibliophile approach, it doesn't always work that way. On a recent visit, I asked for Confederate Women, which it had advertised. Employees failed to find it, though a computer showed several in stock.

FLEETING FAME. Customers aren't the Tattered Cover's only fans. The store hosted 307 writers and illustrators last year, ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Colorado historian Thomas J. Noel. "They take a virtual unknown and treat him like Hemingway," Noel says. My own three Tattered Cover autograph parties didn't weigh in with Arnold Schwarzenegger's. Still, I was feted like a celebrity. The store even took my picture for its gallery of authors. Mine hangs on the basement steps.

I decide to visit it and reluctantly leave the overstuffed chair with its dainty antimacassar where I've spent part of the afternoon. I pause next to the photograph on the chance someone will spot me. No one does, and I'm obstructing traffic. So I take The Alienist to the counter, wondering if I should buy The Last Suppers, too. It's a "culinary mystery" by Diane Mott Davidson, and I've been reading it for the past hour. Naw, I decide. One book is enough. Besides, I can come back to the Tattered Cover tomorrow and finish it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.