Balancing the Books

One Saturday morning about six weeks before April 15, our national day of fiscal confession and atonement, an Orthodox Jewish man and his son walked along Highland Parkway. The two passed a nondescript side-by-side duplex, where a half-dozen tax preparers were knee-deep in paperwork—the kind of work, the onerous old stereotype goes, usually handled by the dark-suited men now walking to temple on the Sabbath. Across the street, the Lubavitch Day Care Center and Day School sat in darkness while clients continued to stream in and out of the duplex, which houses Mohs Tax Service, until 9:00 in the evening.

Through the last thirty years, Linda Mohs has turned her one-woman shop into a virtual empire by working with artists, musicians, actors, and other margin-dwelling, small-business taxpayers. She has ten thousand clients. Her full-time, year-round staff of twelve mans the calculators twelve hours a day, six days a week during the tax season. Mohs herself finds an almost unholy joy in doing taxes. She says it’s “superfun.” She may be working on another man’s Sabbath, but her principles are one reason so many people are drawn to Mohs.

Among the business cards in her waiting room and the names listed on her website are caterers, geriatric care specialists, freehand faux finishers, early-childhood Spanish teachers, and doulas. There are a sprinkling of listings in other languages. Mohs said that half of her job consists of counseling people through crises like divorce or severe financial loss. “My clients are sane and insane, rich and poor, nice and naughty. I love the variety.”

When you walk in the front door of Mohs’ office a computerized voice announces, “Front door, open.” That’s where the formalities end. The wild style of the interior makes one wonder if the rooms are just as noisy when they’re empty. The waiting room is a museum of coffee mugs. Elsewhere, shelves are bowed with paperweights, glassware, and souvenirs. The “South of the border room” is filled with fishing nets and plush toy parrots. The walls are thick with lurid-hued paintings, printed slogans, postcards, one-liners, and family portraits. Employees and their clients sit in ersatz cubicles made from turquoise Naugahyde restaurant booths. Even the kitchen is operational: During tax time, a cook serves homemade lunches and dinners.

Mohs is diminutive and sports a short cap of brown hair and a dazzling array of rings. She has a wide open face and darts from room to room like a squirrel in a giant oak tree as she fields questions about esoteric tax laws, or chirps requests for copies or files over the din. She buys coffee and toilet paper by the vanload and is notorious for her thriftiness, no doubt the result of her childhood among eight siblings on a farm with no electricity or plumbing in Ogilvie, Minnesota. Her family was miserably poor, she said. Her mother worked and her father’s income was negligible. “If we could shoot it or grow it, we ate.” Many times, they went hungry.

Mohs’ relationships with her own children are as distinctive as her business. She can’t tell you how many children she and her husband Tom have raised. They made three of their own, but informally fostered, adopted, and cared for so many other kids, they’ve lost count. She estimates that she has shepherded a dozen kids to their high school graduations. She took in her ninety-year-old great aunt and adopted a three-month-old girl simultaneously. “They were the best of buddies. The little one would hitch a ride on the wheelchair and they had lots of tea parties together.”

In the seventies, Mohs had been doing taxes for her friends in exchange for pizza and beer when she realized she’d lost her appetite for the compensation, but not the work. She did the books for two photographers, Boyd Hagen and Joe Giannetti. When they dissolved their partnership, their employee, Ann Marsden, started her own business and Mohs followed.

Susan Thompson, who has worked with Mohs for ten years, had to leave work early on Saturday for a family emergency but made a point of pausing on her way out to testify about Mohs’ charitable nature. “She’s amazing.”

“She’s more than amazing,” said another employee, Desiree, jumping in when she overheard Thompson.

In addition to her open-door policy to those needing a home or a meal, Mohs and her husband cook and prepare forty turkeys in their kitchen each Thanksgiving and serve dinner at their church. She’s been known to encourage altruistic pricing among her staff.

Despite her advocacy on behalf of her artistic and often beleaguered client base, Mohs believes that the current Republican-controlled legislature has given more breaks to taxpayers than any other administration. She adheres to the commandment that government mind its own business—that may be why so many people return to her for their annual reckoning, and leave uplifted. —Sari Gordon