NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #106
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 9, 1999:

REMEMBERING LINDA BOVEE
BOOK REVIEW: 'VIRGINIA WOOLF'

LETTERS

REMEMBERING LINDA BOVEE

I never met Linda Bovee, nor had I heard of this much-loved children's bookseller until she disappeared a month ago from her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. But like many of her supporters, I find it hard to let her go.

Over the weekend, a body was found 200 miles away from Eugene that police believe is Linda Bovee's.

But controversy still erupts about what happened to Bovee, who bought Just Imagine Children's Books in 1997 and made it a comfortable and appealing (though always struggling) bookstore, "with its inviting reading nook, open shelves full of children's classics, stuffed animals tucked here and there, star and moon mobiles hanging from the ceiling," as the Eugene Register-Guard recently described it.

There is no dispute about the facts of her disappearance. On the morning of October 11, Linda Bovee went to a coffee shop, called a friend and bought Harry Potter books for her customers at a local Barnes & Noble (apparently her usual sources were out of the book). Her husband, Douglas, a physician at a Eugene methadone clinic, believed Linda was missing when she failed to pick up their two daughters at school by 2 p.m.

Police were baffled. There were no signs of foul play, no trail of credit card or phone use, no suspects, no leads. Douglas Bovee said Linda had been "mildly depressed" and concerned about the financial difficulties of the bookstore. But she had "the good sense to try medication, which was working," according to her friend Grace Iurilli, a psychiatric nurse.

Linda, her husband and friends have said many times, was so devoted to her daughters that it would have been "completely out of character" for her to have abandoned them.

By October 27, the second week of his wife's disappearance, Douglas Bovee made "a big and sad decision" to close the bookstore. By the third week, Linda's car was found, its doors locked and out of gas, near Moon Reservoir, an isolated lake surrounded by craggy rimrock and underbrush.

At that time, police believed Linda had driven the car there herself, unaccompanied by another person (they deduced this from articles left on the passenger seat). She appeared to have eaten something while sitting in the car with the heat on, then "walked out in an environment she was not familiar with and perished as a result of adverse conditions," they said.

Friends of Linda Bovee found it hard to accept this premise. According to Register-Guard columnist Karen McCowan, one friend, Naomi Kirtner, "resented police and media references to Bovee's financial woes and past treatment for depression. 'The implication is, that somehow explains her disappearance,' Kirtner said. 'Yet our interactions with Linda have been so normal.' "

"This is so unbelievably frustrating!" wrote Robin Koontz at the Linda Bovee Is Missing website ( http://www.rio.com/~robink/Linda.html ). The police had not explained how they knew Linda was alone when she drove the car, or whether other scenarios had been considered. Had Linda been abducted, someone could have driven her car to the spot and left it running, Koontz surmised, then ridden away with a cohort.

Searches by plane and helicopter were at first unsuccessful. Then at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday, November 6, a body was found floating in Moon Reservoir, a quarter-mile from Bovee's station wagon. Keys to the car were found on the body. The dead woman was wearing a backpack filled with 40 pounds of rocks.

While everyone now believes that Linda Bovee is dead, no one is saying that a single conclusion should be drawn. Even before the body was found, investigators had "not ruled out the possibilities that she was abducted," Eugene police detective Jim Michaud told the Register-Guard, "but more likely scenarios are that she left her car to commit suicide."

Her husband said the most difficult part was explaining Linda's disappearance to his daughters. While "I'm very concerned about the suicide possibility," he added, "there are numerous aspects of that, that don't fit."

But the bewilderment, the shock, the sadness and the perplexity about Linda's disappearance affect everyone. For people in the book industry, the first scenario, that Linda Bovee's "mild depression" suddenly grew so severe that it drove her to suicide, is quite harrowing.

For one thing, whenever her depression is mentioned, it is always linked to the financial problems of her bookstore. The fact that her last known activity was to go to a Barnes & Noble store and buy books for her loyal customers is a horrible irony.

We know that Linda Bovee was not alone in worrying about the financial health of her store. Many independents know that worry well. Insomnia, overwork, anxiety, panic attacks, exhaustion and burn-out are frequent side effects. "Mild depression" is a given.

Critics like me, with the luxury of standing on the sidelines watching all this, often ponder how amazing it is that the very people who are saving good books from falling through the cracks are the ones who must live with the threat of seeing their livelihood go bankrupt every day.

When they stand up to fight, when they bring lawsuits, when they speak of a level playing field, they are accused of whining and complaining. When they remain silent and go under, people wonder why they didn't show some pluck, or a better business sense, or the gumption to fight.

But I think that if Linda Bovee did take her own life, the message she left behind gives us much to thank about independent bookselling. At the same time that we mourn her loss, we can admire the courage it took to keep that store open, day after day, year after year.

Children found their lives transformed when they stepped into Just Imagine's safe and welcoming world of books. Kids who might have thought literature wasn't for them were convinced otherwise when Linda's daughters took part in storytelling hours. Parents who grew weary of sameness and gimmickry in chain stores discovered what it means to have real choices as readers when they looked at the bookshelves of Linda Bovee's store.

It is a tragic fact of our era that every time an independent bookstore closes, that's the end. There will be no replacement. But perhaps this is a message Linda Bovee leaves for us as well: Chain bookstores can sell "product" by the carload, but when an experienced and dedicated bookseller leaves this life, more than her voice has been silenced.

[Late news: Eugene police announced Monday night (11/8/99) that an autopsy of the body confirmed the identity of Linda Bovee and the cause of death as suicide.]

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VIRGINIA WOOLF, Hermione Lee (Vintage; 893 pages; $18; buy online at http://www.boulderbookstore.com )

If Linda Bovee did die in the way police describe, her method of suicide will remind many readers of the death of Virginia Woolf, who placed a large stone in her pocket and walked or jumped into the River Ouse near her home.

In fact the "rational, deliberate" manner of Woolf's last act bears an elegant kind of comfort in this regard as described by biographer Hermione Lee.

In her wonderfully thick and readable biography, Lee follows with meticulous care and understanding what Woolf's friends described as "her bad phases." While the book is a literary biography, quoting and commenting upon Woolf's writing through a critical lens, its sensitivity to Woolf's increasingly fragile psyche and the environment that triggered her final decision is exceptional.

One wonders here, for example, whether Woolf might have lived if it hadn't been for World War II. Her horror of war has been well documented, but Lee shows how the chaos of early bombing raids - trains exploding, trucks unloading sandbags, "the wail of the sirens, and then the drone of the German planes flying in from the sea," as Woolf put it - encroached upon everyone's sanity.

By the time Woolf, sitting down to lunch, watches Nazi planes roar overhead so close that she can "see the swastikas" on their undersides, we begin to understand her inner turmoil at meeting the enemy - and we don't know which enemy it is to her personally at this point - face on.

Writes Lee: "She found herself trying to imagine exactly what being killed by a bomb would feel like ('& shant, for once, be able to describe it'). But she was, mainly, rather 'matter of fact' about the possibility of violent death and the likely imminence of an invasion."

When, finally, Virginia writes to Leonard - "I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we cant go through another of these terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and cant concentrate" - Lee reminds us that the writer is not "an irrational or mad person, but . . a person in despair, with no sense of a future, and suffering from a terrible fear of the possibility of a breakdown with no prospect of recovery.

"The writing of the letter, and the act it presaged, though an act in extremis, was rational, deliberate, and courageous."

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In Canada we have sales tax that varies by province (8% here in Ontario) and a Goods & Services Tax (the GST) for the federal government (7%). The latter is a cumulative tax; in other words, we collect it for all sales but can also deduct what we pay on our inventory, etc.

Anyway, all books imported into Canada are subject to GST (books are exempt in most provinces from sales tax). So, all shipments from Amazon.com to Canada are taxable. I believe Amazon.com collects this, as do other American suppliers. If not, it's collected at the border by the post office (with a $5.00 collecting fee added).

This may be irrelevant to the arguments put forward by bricks-and-mortar booksellers, but it shows that Amazon is willing to collect a sales tax when required to, in this case by a foreign government.

Chuck Erion
Words Worth Books Ltd., Ontario http://www.WordsWorthBooks.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your correspondent (Albert Henderson of Publishing Research Quarterly) made an excellent and long overdue point about exempting books from sales tax, which, as he notes, "is done with magazine subscriptions and newspapers in most states."

It's actually worse than that -- in Washington, for example, cable TV is exempted from the sales tax, thanks to the torrents of money from the cable industry to legislators in Olympia.

And, of course, it has long been understood that the only reason newspapers can put children to work for pennies under the "independent contractor" fiction (and cause many on-the-job injuries and even deaths) is because politicians dare not offend the businesses that run the papers; this is the same reason newspapers are exempt from sales tax.

What I suggest that HU readers do is contact their state ACLU (if they are not already members, why not? There's few who need the ACLU more!) and ask the state affiliate to consider this issue with an eye toward developing policy on the question. The theme is simply that "All we seek is equal treatment --- government should not tax information or, at bare minimum, government should tax words on paper between covers the same as you do words on paper dropped on the doorstep, or words read over a cable TV line."

The civil liberties angle (on top of the obvious fairness one) is that "the first freedom" is free expression, and that taxing ideas published in books but exempting those in newspapers and newsletters and magazines does amount to government favoritism for some forms of speech over others.

John Gear catalyst@pacifier.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

You probably know that the new San Francisco Public Library online catalogue refers users to Amazon.com to check books (look at the bottom of the page if you do a book query). In the past the library checked Books In Print, which was of course not that reliable and wasn't really a public service, either. But for the library to apparently sanction Amazon.com, which it will be doing in the eyes of its patrons, most of whom don't understand all the ins and outs of this situation, is truly grotesque - given the library's relationship to literature, publishing, & the independent bookstores. No doubt they are trying to make books more accessible to a wider public, but this is hardly the way to do it, long term.

A reader

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I hope things work out for the Amazon bookstore in Minneapolis. I used to live in that neighborhood, and saw many talented authors like Dorothy Allison read at the store. I am grateful for such opportunities, which were made possible by the existence of independent bookstores like Amazon.

While I support independent bookstores in theory, the reality is that they usually don't sell my books, nor do they sell the magazines that publish my work. The big chain stores and Amazon.com always carry them. I'm a full-time freelance writer, and if I had to rely on independent booksellers to get my books and magazine articles to the public, I would have to find another way of earning my living. I'm in no way condemning independent bookstores, but this situation affects me greatly. If such bookstores are to survive, they need to find ways to offer the buying public something the chains do not offer.

Darwin Holmstrom
Dickinson, North Dakota

Holt responds: Are you the author of the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles" with Jay Leno? I can't imagine that independents don't sell this book - or do you mean not enough of it? (I see it on sale at several independent bookstore websites.)

Darwin Holmstrom answers: Yes, I'm the author of the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles." I've seen that book in quite a few independent bookstores. What concerns me is that my next two books, both published by a small independent press (White Horse), will have a much harder time making it into the independent bookstores. White Horse is a family-run operation, distributed by Motor Books International. The problem I see involves resources. Most independent bookstores can't afford to carry a wide variety of specialty books unless they've identified an audience for such books, and neither White Horse nor MBI has the resources to track down the independent bookstores who do carry their product. Thus they focus on the big chains, which actually sell an awful lot of motorcycle books.

I wish I had a solution to offer for this problem. I have a friend who recently closed down her independent bookstore, due to a Barnes and Noble moving into the area. The chains are killing the independents, but the chains are not going to go away. I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that it will involve some very creative thinking, if bookstores like the one my friend operated are to survive. DH

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