Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2004 Issue

Book Business Heroes

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Long about March of 2000, five police officers marched into The Tattered Cover with a search warrant giving the police the right to obtain information about the books that had been purchased by a specific customer suspected in a drug investigation. When searching his home and garbage, the police had found two drug recipe books; Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture, by Uncle Fester, and Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories, 2nd edition, by Jack B. Nimble. They also found a receipt, without the names of the books purchased, and some packing materials from Tattered Cover.

Citing First Amendment rights of its customers, and in spite of the healthy, natural fear that most of us feel when confronted with a team of armed police, Ms. Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Bookstore, stood firm and refused to allow the police to search the records. The police maintained their need for this material outweighed First Amendment protections, Ms. Meskis did not concur. According to the American Bookseller's Foundation for Free Expression website, “The Tattered Cover argued that the police failed to demonstrate a compelling need for the records and a sufficient nexus between the records and the criminal investigation.” In other words, there were a number of other avenues they could have taken to establish the guilty parties without checking out their reading habits. Though we may never know whether these two books were actually mailed from the Tattered Cover, the two books found by the police in the suspect’s home lacked a Tattered Cover label, which is placed on the back cover of every book they mail from their store and there were other books in the home that could have come from Tattered Cover or any other bookstore, for that matter.

According to the ABFFE, Ms. Meskis’ refusal was followed by the ACLU of Colorado filing “an amicus brief arguing that the state constitutional right of free expression requires special procedural protections when the government seeks information about who is reading which particular books.” She lost the first battle, but went to appeals court and, “in a groundbreaking opinion that recognizes the dangers posed by government monitoring of citizens’ reading habits, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bookstore.” The court ruled that bookstores must have a chance for a hearing before the search warrant is executed. Of course that wasn’t the end of it and what followed was a lot of sloppy police work, a lot of expensive court procedures and an enormous amount of wasted time for all involved.

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