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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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?

Labyrinth Books
122 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08540
www.labyrinthbooks.com

top image: en.wikipedia.org

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Sometimes I think I’m prescient (actually, I think I come up with ideas at the same time or slightly ahead of other people who are far more established, possessed of name recognition, book deals, sharp agents and better meta-tags that draw more people to their web sites. Oh well). My latest ah-ha moment took place while looking through my current copy of O, the magazine of all things Oprah. Its chirpy emphasis on self-discovery can get annoying, but where else will you find inspirational stories, customized advice columns, wide-ranging book recommendations and information on where to buy great handbags for under $100?

 

Anyway, it occurred to me that a President who drops book references as casually as Martha Stewart might lean over during lunch and craft your napkin into a centerpiece could be as influential as Oprah when it comes to promoting his favorite reads. Guess it’s obvious, since an article appeared in the paper about the value of a plug from the president-elect; this after the hoopla over three current books on FDR, one of which he may have referenced in a 60 Minutes interview. He didn’t even name the book, yet those three writers have benefited from the attention. Now most non-fiction authors, including yours truly, are trying to figure out how to get on the reading list of our next President. 

 

What better way to try and understand what he’s thinking, or what he’ll be doing, than to find out what he reads? Is Doris Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln the inspiration behind his outreach to Hillary for Secretary of State (and what might inspire Hillary to decline it: It’s A Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments?) Does his off-handed mention of a book about FDR’s first hundred days (whichever book it is) suggest how he will govern during economic hard times? Isn’t his own The Audacity of Hope really a blueprint for his political philosophy?

 

 

Of course we can always read books about Obama although they seem to veer between adulatory and vitriolic. I’d rather try and read what he’s reading, along with my usual escapist fare. I have a feeling that, as busy as he is about to be, he could help me keep my bedside bookshelf stocked for the next several years. Meanwhile, I can always pick and choose from among Oprah’s recommendations if I want to know what America’s most influential woman is reading – at least until I get a look at Michelle’s book list.

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My pleasure reading tends to be semi-lowbrow fiction: mysteries and thrillers, the odd fantasy or science fiction, historical novel and sometimes deceptively small character-driven books. I don’t do too well with romance novels or their modern sub-genre, chick-lit; I don’t identify with the earnest, ditzy, determined or confused heroines, all of whom end up depending on the appearance of “Mr. Right”. My idea of escapist fare involves puzzles that have to be solved or life-or-death decisions that have to be made. The drama unfolds in the courtroom, not the bedroom.

However, I’m hooked on a particularly appealing non-fiction book right now called “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby. This academic, erudite, densely packed but highly readable book lays out all the ways and all the reasons our culture has been dumbed down – I mean seriously, irrevocably dumbed down. There have been other books that have sounded the alarm; reviewers have been referring to Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” written in 1963. But Jacoby’s smart, angry, sometimes funny book has the advantage of being very current and extraordinarily specific about all the ways we Americans proudly go for the lowest common denominator. It’s not just that we don’t know science or geography or social studies; we don’t know why we should. We misuse words, misunderstand meanings, resort to easy labels and shrug. We think information equals knowledge, every piece of news is actually newsworthy and every issue has two equivalent sides (to given an example: saying the Holocaust occurred and saying it didn’t are not rationally equal points of view), a position encouraged by cable talk shows.

If you think Ms. Jacoby is preaching to the choir, you’re right. I absolutely believe she’s onto something. I’m not nearly as outraged as she is, probably because I’m not nearly as smart or as intellectually rigorous. In fact, I’m guilty of accepting lower standards of excellence in everything from writing to speaking to TV programming. Still, I’m aware of my shortcomings and make daily efforts to improve my knowledge base. And while I suppose my swearing contributes to the cultural coarsening she deplores, I swear I know the difference between trash, even the enjoyable junk, and news that’s worthy of serious consideration. Britney does not equal Iran on my radar screen. It does for many Americans, though and that’s what worries me.

I’m also concerned, as is Jacoby, about how the idiocy we’re force-fed dulls our ability to think rationally. We’re really getting out of practice, people. How else to explain the bills proposed by Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin that would allow professors and some students carry guns on Alabama’s college campuses, legislation gaining some traction following the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University? The good Senator is quoted as saying: ” “Most university folks feel a no-gun policy is the best policy. I understand their feelings, but reality says otherwise.” Arm students and teachers and let everyone shoot at each other? I want to scream, “Have we lost our minds?” but I already know the answer.

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I love to read – always have – and so my eye was caught by the announcement of a recent study about Americans and reading. The report, issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that young Americans are not reading for fun as much as they used to. The study, ominously if cleverly entitled “To Read or Not To Read” is a followup to one in 2004 which discovered that more than half of all Americans don’t read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. Fearing perhaps that focusing on such effete intellectual pastimes as literary reading would draw further ire from Congressmen who have no use for the endowment, the NEA expanded its scope to include all reading, including nonfiction. What the research indicates is that there is an link between falling test scores and less recreational or “voluntary” reading among middle school and high school students (frequent readers do better on tests, obviously).

What occured to me to ask (and many others, according to an article in the paper) is whether either the researchers or the respondants are factoring in online reading.  True, the democracy of the Internet guarantees a high amount of purile drivel, particularly if you are driven to read the rant that passes for dialogue on most discussion boards. But there’s a surprising amount of decent reading available – original fiction from unpublished writers, online magazines with articles by thoughtful scribes, websites that bring together relevant articles from print magazines you might have forgotten to buy. I’m discomforted by the idea that reading comprehension scores have dropped and I hope educators can come up with creative ways to address that problem.  Most important to me, however, is not what people read or in what form they read it but that they are able to get beyond reading words to understanding fully how – and why – those words are being used.

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