Micawber Books will close its doors this spring as Princeton University prepares to make the leap across Nassau Street to relocate its sales operations into the Central Business District, in a move that will also spell the end of two other current downtown retail locations.
The University's current bookseller, the U-Store, will phase out its books operations as Labyrinth Books, an independently-owned books franchise that manages the bookstores at Columbia and Yale, will take over the lease for the space currently occupied by Foot Locker. The U-Store will open a satellite location at the current Children's Place and Micawber's new books venue, selling apparel and other school-related products.
The University will assume responsibility for the lease of Micawber's used books site at 110 Nassau Street, but has yet to find a tenant for that location. Of the three buildings involved in the deal, Princeton University will purchase only the building at 112-114 Nassau Street, which will remain fully on the Borough's tax rolls.
However, the announcement signals the end for a beloved Princeton institution in Micawber, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. In a teary and terse prepared comment at a news conference Monday, Micawber co-owner Logan Fox cited not only a desire to retire, but also the increasing challenges faced in running a small, independent bookshop in the age of the Internet and larger booksellers.
"It was, of course, a really emotional, difficult decision. Our ties with the individuals and institutions of Princeton are very strong, and on a personal level have been very rewarding," he said, but added that he and co-owner Margaret Griffin were "extremely pleased" over the agreement as "it ensures the presence of an independently owned bookstore on Nassau Street for years to come."
Micawber is expected to close in March 2007, with a phased reduction of book inventory beginning in January.
Micawber had rebounded from crises in the past, but this time, Mr. Fox said, outside industry played a role too great at a time when he and Ms. Griffin were thinking about calling it quits regardless.
The first crisis came in the early and mid-1990s when large chain stores began to dictate industry standards, Mr. Fox said. At that time, Ms. Griffin became a partner at Micawber, and the store was able to survive and even expand into its new location by 2000. "If Margaret hadn't become partner, we would have been gone then," Mr. Fox said, adding that business at the time had dropped as much as 30 percent.
The latest, and more relentless challenge is the Internet, Mr. Fox said: "It's a much more difficult thing to put your finger on. You see its influence with textbook sales, but there's no way to know what the loss of revenue is."
That said, Micawber is still a viable enterprise, and "Princeton is a great book town, but after 25 years, we're ready to think about something else," Mr. Fox said.
Clifford Simms, the president of Labyrinth Books, said that while his franchise is not immune to obstacles in the bookselling industry, he has been able to work with publishers in trying "to get them to understand that it's a very different time in this culture.
"Imaginative, critical reading is at risk and we need to invent and rethink other policies to get books into readers' hands, and that's been part of what we've done," he said, adding that the future is still uncertain. Labyrinth, which opened after the first onslaught of the chains and at the beginning of Internet bookselling, has been able to cope with those factors.
"Books are a very strange commodity: they're completely deflationary, and yet everyone thinks they're too expensive." Mr. Simms noted that book prices have not increased in "real dollar terms" since the 1970s, and yet pointed to an anecdotal recognition that the price of textbooks is "completely outrageous.
"And some of it is true, and it's a very serious concern."
Mr. Simms said Princeton was a good platform to examine what he termed "sustainable practices" for booksellers and universities. "We've worked very hard to keep this a viable business."
Labyrinth, which is expected to be operational in time for the fall 2007 academic year, will include author events, Mr. Simms said, as well as conducting cultural outreach with area institutions.
Meanwhile, the U-Store, a co-op enterprise on University Place that is a separate entity from the University, will have some space to fill once its books operation is phased out. Dorothy Bedford, chair of the store's board of trustees, said that book sales have been "stagnant" and that the board would implement a new strategic focus for its business. Ms. Bedford did indicate, however, that the U-Store would retain its supplies department, pharmacy, and convenience store at its current site.
The store has been disrupted by physical changes that were seen as unwelcome to some shoppers, most notably, moving the books section to the third floor, only to move them back to the first floor shortly thereafter.
Efforts to revitalize the U-Store by transforming it into the role Labyrinth will eventually play were considered, but not pursued. "We didn't see the full opportunity in the U-Store," said University President Shirley Tilghman. Robert Durkee, the school's vice president and secretary agreed, saying that the U-Store's strengths should be recalibrated for other needs:
"The U-Store will be able to focus on those things that it does exceedingly well and uniquely in meeting the needs of students and others, but the specialized expertise is needed to run a scholarly bookstore."
Mark Burstein, the University's executive vice president, who also had a hand in bringing Labyrinth to Princeton, said recent student surveys indicated that students had become more dependent on non-book-related U-Store services.
While Princeton University's crossing of the proverbial great divide of Nassau Street could cause grousing among some residents and shop owners, the student community is known to be somewhat detached from downtown, despite recent administrative tactics at the University pushing for an effort to establish a better blending. Robert Landau, an owner of Landau's on Nassau Street, and neighbor of Micawber, said the presence of Labyrinth could be a boon for downtown businesses.
"For years, the classic pattern has seen students receding from town as the University has been doing more and more on campus," he said, citing the food services at Frist Campus Center as a reason why students stay on campus.
But now, Mr. Landau said, that pattern could change.
"What this does is give stores a whole new population of people," Mr. Landau said, with a nod to one of the Borough's major problems: "A new population that doesn't need to park their cars."
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