by Pat Holt

Friday, November 12, 1999:




What's the best way for an independent bookstore to combat a new Borders when the chain store "slithers" into town?

Why, these days you just turn to the imaginative resources of your customers, who instantly come up with such ideas as "Grants for Bums in Residence," and "Free Practice Space for New Bands." But before we get to that, let's review the story of Bookshop Santa Cruz and its attempt to keep Santa Cruz free of giant, out-of-scale megastores like Borders Books & Music (see #89, September 9).

It seemed like such a straightforward matter: Some time ago, a big new building in downtown Santa Cruz CA was approved by city planners for four businesses with at least 7 doors opening up on the street of town, Pacific Ave.

Then Redtree Properties, the same developer that had attempted to bring a 25,000-square-foot Borders into nearby Capitola (and failed), decided to bring Borders into Santa Cruz instead. This meant Borders would become a single-occupancy tenant in the big new building, with only 3 doors open to customers on Pacific Avenue.

In other cities, that might not have meant very much, but in Santa Cruz, which had rebuilt itself from the rubble of California's 1989 earthquake into a city of tents, then into a downtown designed to preserve the character of small-town (not chain-store) life, the change was considered enormous.

A mix of small chain stores downtown (Gap, Starbuck's, Wherehouse, Jamba Juice) and local stores was fine. But big-box retailers dominating the oceanside town's landscape at least needed formal review.

So when last we heard, Neal Coonerty, the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, which for 16 years has been the major bookstore and central literary force in the region, sought a hearing about the change of tenancy of the big Redtree building from 4 locally owned stores to one 25,000-square-foot Borders. At first the City Council was behind him, but as months wore on, Redtree mounted a campaign accusing Coonerty of "cronyism" and threatening to sue Santa Cruz if it didn't get its way.

To make a very long story short, by the time of Tuesday night's lengthy into-the-wee-hours City Council meeting, Redtree was said to have escalated its threat to suing for triple damages and, although 10,000 residents had signed a petition against Borders and Coonerty had hired his own lawyer to fight attacks on several fronts, the City Council voted 5-2 to let Redtree bring Borders in.

So this is the way, as Bookshop Santa Cruz supporters put it, Borders will "slither" into town next March, not exactly welcome by the total population but legally protected in any case. Meanwhile, Coonerty and his staff, far from giving up, are already talking about the fight to come.

"I know we can survive this," he said on Wednesday. "We survived the earthquake; we operated out of a tent for three years; and regardless of losing this battle, we've educated the community here that there really is a war between chain stores and independent bookstores going on. Our sales haven't wavered the whole time, and I have to say that if competition makes for a better store, we're going to examine every inch of the Bookshop to make it stronger."

Borders, he says, "is understaffed, struggling on Wall Street, down on quality - a bad corporation with at best a pretty store. You can bet we're going to end up joining the ABA's (American Bookseller Association's) lawsuit as Borders' nightmare plaintiff."

It's the resilience of independent bookstores that always surprises onlookers - after fighting chain stores on one flank, discounters on another, Costcos/Waldens/Targets on another and the Amazon.coms of the world on still another, independents somehow come back with more energy than ever.

And throughout ordeals like this, it's often the humor of customers that makes for an optimistic perspective: Noting that four of the doors Redtree once proposed will now remain closed, Santa Cruz resident Linda Hooper has offered suggestions for ways use the alcoves that will be constructed instead.

Among her proposals: "Grants for Bums in Residence . . . Each day one lucky bum will be secretly handed a crisp new $5, $10 or $20 bill . . . Noisy bums who get themselves tossed out are disqualified, unless they come to City Council meetings to complain about unfair treatment by Borders management."

Or why not use the former doorways for "Free Practice Space for New Bands" and as places for Hari Krishna and other groups to practice "Religious Exuberance . . . a multicultural, pan-theological parade of drums, dancing, sermons, songs, portable pipe organs."

Hooper concludes: "What a wonderful country that we are free, free to cheat as Borders does, and free to celebrate our Creed in public. On the street. Near retail shops. I love America. I'm not leaving."

But it's her more serious statement to Redtree Properties and Borders that perhaps is her most memorable line: "If the artists and writers are against you, you can not prevail."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

. . . I can certainly empathize with what Ms. Linda Bovee went though during the 1997, 1998 and 1999 years. We purchased our shop (also very strong in children's titles) early in 1997, and things have been sliding ever since we bought it.

This shop has been here for 72 years, Pat, and I'm going to be the "bad guy" when we close it after the Christmas Season is over. People in the town here are not loyal whatsoever, yet they will all cry when we close our doors. But unless I win the Lotto, we have to close our doors soon.

People come in with all these BIG ideas for us to try, but they don't back up their ideas with a purchase. Our store (if packed with books) could hold MAYBE 15,000 titles. The Borders in town has 125,000 books. We order books and get them in two days. They order books and get them in two WEEKS. But the American consumer has this overwhelming sense of immediacy. They cannot seem to wait two days for a book that they will buy today and that will sit on the nightstand unopened for two weeks.

My heart goes out to Mr. Douglas Bovee and their children. It's sad. I have two daughters myself, and I cannot say that I have thought about taking my own life --mainly because of them. But this business is getting uglier and uglier by the week, and the numbers are reflecting that ugliness.

Thanks for the story. I hope it touches more than just booksellers. I hope it finds its way into the hearts of the American consumer.

Al Brown
Robin's Bookshop, Geneva


Dear Holt Uncensored,

As I read through your column on Linda Bovee, I am reminded of a book by Kay Redfield Jamison that has just been released, entitled "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide" [Knopf; 320 pages; $26]. Dr. Jamison, herself bipolar (manic-depressive) and also a psychiatrist well aware of depression and its insidious and dangerous progression, enlightens for us how a seemingly "mild" or manageable depression, to others, is silently but progressively growing within the sufferer, and the "leap," if we may call it that, from relative sanity to the insanity of suicide under these conditions, that can simply overwhelm one's normally rational side and render the deed done, leaving the rest of us to wonder why, what happened, she seemed ok, etc.

I am also struck by the book review of the Virginia Woolf biography in this issue - I have read several times that Virginia Woolf would, had she lived today and gone to a psychiatrist in these times, been diagnosed as bipolar (again, manic-depressive), and back then, there were no appropriate medications that would have helped much. So, one suffered on, and situations that someone who isn't bipolar seems able to cope with (though with sleepless nights, terror of being bombed, hearing voices, overwhelmed the helplessness and hopelessness of it all), VW was not.

Dr. Jamison has written another book, "An Unquiet Mind" [Random House; 224 pages; $12 paper], about her own descent into madness resulting from bipolar disorder, before her disease was controlled; it was years before she obtained help that worked, and in the interim, was suicidal and did try to kill herself. Fortunately, she was spared death, and we are fortunate to still have her with us. She is a beacon of hope for others who are bipolar - as I am myself, now 53 and just in this last year diagnosed as bipolar (now with medication that HELPS!!), despite 30 years of therapy, on and off, mostly "on." I too was suicidal three times, and . . . was able to realize that I didn't really want to DIE, I just wanted the pain and agony to end - I wanted to be better, to be normal (or whatever that means).

Perhaps Linda Bovee was actually bipolar, or in a rather severe depression but "looked ok" on the outside but unable to share the DEPTH of that depression due to the shame-based framework from which she possibly saw everything . . . I encourage all of us to keep our eyes and ears open, to really sit down and TALK to others, be aware when they are going through tough times, design ways to have a safety net for the depressed person to turn to. . . I mean talking about the REALITY of suicidal thoughts coming up, and then deciding with the person WHAT (s)he will do if and when that happens, and then reviewing it even weekly, or daily, if you need to. Be available. TELL the person to call you or whomever even if it is 2 am - the Hour of the Dead, when the night turns the blackest - and that you will come right over, to DO NOTHING until you get there - and have a neighbor available to call for this emergency, to just step over and BE THERE so the suicidal person can't act out and help can be gotten in time. Sometimes, all we do will not be enough - but, we have to try. Don't just hope that things'll get better - they may not! Thanks for listening.

A reader in Hawaii


Dear Holt Uncensored;

I am a fan of your column and your unrelenting populism, but I must protest: To draw a relationship between Linda Bovee's tragic demise (whether suicide or otherwise) and the financial insecurity of independent bookselling is too great a leap. Like you, I sit on the sidelines, marvelling at the dedication of booksellers, who often run their businesses based on conviction rather than the standard rules of commerce. Like our best small presses, they are a beacon of hope in a marketing-mad industry.

However, this does not allow us the luxury of drawing a relationship between bookstore ownership and whatever terrible combination of events and/or body chemistry brought Bovee to her death. At least, the comments of her friend and husband, and the fact that her last known activity was buying books at Barnes & Noble, do not provide the necessary ammo.

Ellen Heltzel
Book Editor, The Oregonian

Holt responds: Perhaps I didn't express this well, but the point was that independent booksellers everywhere are struggling with similar financial problems and share aspects of the deepening despondency that Linda Bovee knew well. I certainly wasn't trying to say there was a causal connection between the B&N experience and her death. It was just a horrible irony.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: "By the time Woolf, sitting down to lunch, watches Nazi planes roar overhead so close that she can "see the swastikas" on their undersides... " Not that this is terribly interesting but Nazi planes never bore swastikas - rather, they bore the German Iron Cross. I know, big deal.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I can't help wondering, were you were ever in Linda Bovee's store? I saw it in September and believe she had good reason to be depressed with or without the competetive pressures she was facing. I never met her but the store was obviously being run by a very inexperienced owner, was seriously undercapitalized or (most likely) both. While they are directly responsible for the imminent collapse of our civilization EVERYTHING is not the fault of the chains.

Holt Responds: You mean to tell me that wind-chill factor is an Act of God?


Dear Holt Uncensored:

When I think of the many many times in my life that I have fantasized about owning my own book shop and the kind of "heavenly" life I concocted to go along with that blissful dream -- and now I sit here in helpless tears at the news of Linda Bovee's suicide, a woman I never knew but whose dreams were apparently cut from the same cloud as my own, and whose nightmares could so easily have been my own. I know that all I can do is reinforce my vow never NEVER to buy from an online monster bookseller, and to shop in my neighborhood independent as frequently as possible. All my nonreading friends and family had better wake up and smell the coffee -- they're all getting books (again) for Christmas this year.

Barbara Lehman
Mill Valley CA


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your reader, Darwin Holmstrom Dickinson of North Dakota , states the big chains carry the magazines in which he gets his articles published, so therefore he would prefer to support the chains. In the next sentence he states," If such bookstores are to survive, they need to find ways to offer the buying public something the chains do not offer."

I would like to tell Mr.Holmstrom, congratulations - he is a writer who has his work published by the mainstream magazines. What he suggests to us is exactly what we are doing. We don't offer what the big chains offer. Often they, the Chain store, offer the very same item you see in WalMart or a major grocery store. The independents will carry independent presses, including the alternative magazines and periodicals. I'm sorry you don't feel like we are helping you at all in distributing the mainstream magazines you get published in. But, I feel like those main stream magazines don't need our help. They get plenty of help all over the country from other sources.

Anita Barela, R Books
Los Alamos NM