Trident Booksellers & Cafe embarks on new era

Exploring one of Boulder’s cultural touchstones

By Tatyana Sharpton Nov 10 2020

On any day of the week, and anytime of day, Trident Booksellers and Cafe buzzes like the warm burn of a stove top left on, its tall bookshelves stocked with tones and the cafe’s nooks filled with people working, reading or quietly chatting.

Trident’s front lawn. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Tucked into the west end of Pearl at 940 Pearl Street, between Urban Outfitters and Wonder Juice Press, Trident still feels like a hidden gem, though it’s been a Boulder staple for over four decades.

Some use it as their daily office while pass through to the building’s alley offices, hoping to steal some warmth from the room and leaving with a faint scent of espresso and cinnamon. The spacious backyard offers a sunny garden escape for reading, writing and hanging out.

The café serves up everything from espresso drinks and non-caffeinated drinks like its Golden Latte made with turmeric, and serves beer and wine in the evenings, but it’s big, beautiful space takes the cake.

The half-bookstore and half-café has doors at the end of each side that open to a massive covered backyard, with a bar-seat lined deck overlooking a stage below where bands play and community theater troupes act. With its smattering of tables and chairs amid the backyard’s gravel, and a large door stands in the middle of the space, Trident’s patio seems almost like a stage set itself.

Perhaps it’s this playful energy that makes Trident so timelessly appealing.

[State of Wonder: Boulder’s premier juice shop prepares for expansion]

Trident’s big, open backyard. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

A collaborative spirit

Trident’s wood-lined interior, designed by Hudson Shotwell and James Gimian. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Opened in 1980 by Hudson Shotwell and James Gimian, two members of Boulder’s Vajradhatu Buddhist community, Trident has a lineage of stewards. At one point, a manager from 1982 to 2014 bought into Trident and became an owner as well, and the three steered the community’s ship until both original owners moved away, launching Trident Booksellers & Cafes in Boston and Canadian province Nova Scotia.

As Hudson and James departed, Ashkan and Amanda Angha and Joellen and Scott Raderstorf bought their shares of the company and became the next generation of owners.

Described by its employees as a supportive place to work, Trident has always fostered a strong community, with many staying for years and returning after time away. However, this fall, spurred by the pandemic-fueled need to reinvent and in a culminated response to national events, the company did something new.

On September 15, the Boulder touchstone transitioned its business model from a top-down hierarchy to level, across-the-board employee-ownership. Anyone can buy in — they just need to have worked at Trident for at least a year. Trident split its ownership into shares based on today’s current stock market rate, and a pool of eligible employees buys what each can afford.

Peter Jones

With it nearly impossible to earn a livable wage in the service industry on a good day — as restaurants close now to 25% capacity — Trident’s owners dreamt it up as a way to give employees a sense of security and opportunity to rise up, and claim a stake in Boulder.

This change brought Trident’s ownership from four to 13 owners, with everyone equalized. The former owners now pull shifts just like everyone else and at the owners’ meeting, everyone attends and has voting rights. Boulder’s Trident has approximately 20 employees total.

“Like, I’d never in my wildest dreams say I own a business on Pearl Street,” Peter Jones, Trident’s general manager and co-owner tells BLDRfly. “I’d have to come up with a loan for $500,000. So for many people in the service industry, or younger people, it’s never been a possibility. Now there is.”

Jake Dirnberger, another of Trident’s 13 employees. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

[Watch our mini documentary on Trident’s move to employee ownership]

A shifting business landscape

Trident makes and sells its own tea. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Ideally, no one should notice the shift at Trident. You will still get your espresso poured right and your same chocolate croissant. Except now, you’ll likely have three or four owners around on any given day.

More than anything, Trident’s shift to employee-ownership sets a uniquely unprecedented example in Boulder that puts taking care of its employees up on a bar just as high as taking care of its customers, in a different way.

“It’s a place where we’re encouraged to be ourselves,” part-owner Wisteria Bristol, who has worked at Trident for six years, tells BLDRfly. “We’re supported in the many different things we do that can be incorporated into what we do here –to live our other life, go travel, have other interests.”

Trident’s open book room and Wisteria on the right, through the pastry case. Images: Tatyana Sharpton.

Decisions made for the café will now have 13 voices, and wider ownership means different individuals can help drive different initiatives, like writing in to city council about keeping the parklets up through winter, or bringing in heaters.

Though more voices might mean some decisions take longer, it will also bring a wider input to topics like how to police people camping out in Trident’s dining rooms for hours on end.

“It’s not a straightforward or easy solution,” says Peter. “Now you have 13 people, not one or two. Laying down hard guidelines and rules, you have to be willing to listen to each other, it’s like a family.”

Peter tells us that so far, the café has only received positive feedback on its shift, and he encourages any businesses curious about the model to reach out.

Three of Trident’s owners: Crystal Garcia, Wisteria Bristol and Peter Jones. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.