Princeton: The name evokes serious scholarly pursuit. Among its alumni are governors, senators, presidents, Supreme Court justices, admirals, rocket scientists, inventors, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, and a few bona fide Hollywood stars.
It stands to reason that a quintessential university town like Princeton would have an independent bookstore. For 26 years, Micawber Books was that store, until the owner decided to close for personal reasons. . Meanwhile, the township built a new library and just outside the town limits, Barnes and Noble had customized a branch to draw the Princeton clientele by including knowledgeable information specialists, a large supply of arcane books and a roster of top-drawing guest speakers. No one was quite sure whether the town would see another independent bookstore.
Enter Labyrinth Books. After making sure Micawber’s owner was truly out of the bookstore business (“We would never have come to a small town and displaced a quality independent store with deep roots in the community,” says Labyrinth owner Dorothea von Moltke), the new store opened in 2006, backed by a partnership with the University and a strong wholesale business. Add to that an ambitious community outreach, and Labyrinth appears to have hit on a winning formula.
The retail establishment is just what you want in an indie book store. Unusual and unexpected books are more likely to grace the windows than are best sellers, although those are also on hand. Nearly every weekend, the bins are placed outside, where they become part of the busy main street culture that attracts many tourists in addition to students and members of the local community. Labyrinth doesn’t have a coffee shop and products like mugs, bookmarks, and calendars are kept to a minimum, especially since they can be found in the University gift shop next door.
Labyrinth and its helpful website are both organized “so you can find what you didn’t know you were looking for.” True, but the wide variety of categories makes it likely you’ll find what you were hoping to find. The business of book–buying, browsing, reading and discussing–is what Labyrinth is all about
Dorothea and her husband met in New York; she was finishing her PhD at Columbia University and he was co-owner of the nearby store, BookForum. In the mid-nineties, the couple founded Great Jones Books, which has become nationally recognized as a wholesaler of quality hurts and remainders.
Labyrinth Books opened a retail store in New Haven, close to Yale University more than a decade ago. The owners established strong ties to the faculty and students. But Yale’s administration chose as its official partner the Barnes and Noble branch just around the corner from Labyrinth. “To say that [Yale] did nothing to support the presence of an independent, scholarly and community bookstore in town is, unfortunately, even a bit of an understatement,” notes von Moltke pointedly. The New Haven store closed in May of 2011.
In Princeton, however, Labyrinth has a true collaboration with the University and remains its official source for all required course books as well as important ancillary materials. The bookstore is next to the University store; both do a brisk trade, especially on weekends. A new pilot program launched in September offers students 30% off. Discounts are also available to faculty. The University sponsors events at the store; Princeton professors are often guest speakers.
The store’s relationship with the community is one of mutual devotion. Labyrinth’d mission–“keeping reading alive and…reaching across intellectual as well as social divides”—is especially important to the highly educated, culture-loving residents. Program co-sponsors have included the Princeton Public Library (itself a significant cultural presence in the community), the Princeton Research Forum, Trenton Crisis Ministries, Sustainable Princeton, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Princeton’s well-regarded McCarter Theater, to name a few. Labyrinth has also established, with carbonfund.org, a unique program designed to offset the carbon foot-print of any book purchased from the store for an additional five cents per book, that sum matched by the organization. Von Moltke believes these partnerships enable Labyrinth to “keep questions of social justice as well as the viability of the arts at the forefront of our concerns.”
Princeton is home to a great many writers, some quite well-known and others less so. The store is generous in giving both established and relatively unknown authors time and attention (author’s note: I gave a reading at the store, which carries my book, in 2010).Whereas Barnes and Noble might sniff at a pitch from an author without a national platform or a slot on the best-seller list; Labyrinth will offer a place in its events calendar for a reading/book signing and free publicity through its mailing lists.
Labyrinth’s bread and butter comes from its business as a highly reputable and nationally recognized scholarly book wholesaler. “To be the booksellers we are,” von Moltke says, “we need also to be book-wholesalers; [we are] constantly looking for the best books at the best prices.” GJB buys titles “by the truckload” at auction, keeps what’s best for the store, catalog, and retail website, and sells the rest to bookstores nationally and internationally. GJB has a warehouse not far from Princeton in Pennington, New Jersey that carries more than 50,000+ titles at discounted prices, “more than the largest of chain stores,” according to von Moltke. The idea is to source books that the ever-churning marketplace has given up on; giving them a longer life by bringing those books back into circulation and selling them at deep discounts. The process is designed to allow both GJB and its retail store to compete with chains and online retailers
Businesses like Amazon present a challenge, von Moltke admits. “Here you have a bookseller for whom books are effectively lost leaders for selling other products such as cosmetics, electronics, and all the rest,” she explains, adding, “Competing with a ubiquitous bookseller who is not looking to make any money on books will always be tricky.”
The future of print material is another question mark in terms of the viability of the Labyrinth model. The owners are already looking ahead: they are hoping to acquire a print-on-demand machine (called the espresso machine), which would allow them to print any book in the public domain as well per-copy self-published books and perhaps even current titles, once publishers warm to the idea. Says von Moltke with obvious enthusiasm, “This would mean we would never have to say to a customer that we don’t have a book. Instead, we’d tell them: give me 2 minutes.”
The owners seem to have hit upon a way to survive and thrive: the small store is backed by a successful wholesale book business with a huge list and deep discounts. In the end, it’s all about the culture of reading. Labyrinth is devoted to providing its customers with any book, anytime–the ones they need and the ones they didn’t know they wanted. What more could any of us ask from an independent bookstore?
122 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08540
top image: en.wikipedia.org