Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 45
 
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
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Labyrinth Books and U-Store Fill Nassau Street Vacancies

Matthew Hersh

While the latest contributors to downtown Princeton’s retail scene may inject a renewed vitality into Princeton’s streetscape, they also, in some cases, revive a familiar presence.

The independent bookseller, Labyrinth Books, and the Princeton University Store are slated to hold their soft openings on November 14 and November 15, respectively, thereby filling a significant amount of downtown square footage that had been vacant since Micawber Books, the Children’s Place, and Foot Locker, all closed shop in late winter 2007.

Local shoppers already know the U-Store from its 50-plus years on University Place, but in the case of newcomer Labyrinth, which will assume the U-Store’s role of scholarly and academic bookseller, some familiar Micawber Books faces should help soften the significant change downtown.

“Certainly, for us, this is special,” said bookseller Mark Gillian, a Micawber mainstay now working for Labyrinth. “We are excited to see this great new bookstore develop, and we’re happy to be passing on our good energy.”

Optimism rules the day for Labyrinth and U-Store principals. Since Micawber announced last year that it would close its doors, and would sell its building to Princeton University, a tricky piece of choreography had to be performed in order to open the way for two retailers who are completely independent (the U-Store is a not-for-profit corporation unaffiliated with Princeton University). A customer walking into Labyrinth will not be inundated with the quaint orange and black trimmings accompanying the array of Princetoniana that used to greet visitors to the old U-Store. The venue is modern, academically neutral, and represents what Princeton University officials hope is a trend toward independent booksellers in college towns.

“The idea is that these are independent merchants, and they serve the need of the University, but this is not a University bookstore, and we made a conscious decision to go in this direction,” said Paul Breitman, Princeton University’s general manager for University Services, during a tour of the facilities on Tuesday. Princeton University leases what is commonly known as the Woolworth Building at 116-122 Nassau Street, and subleases the space to Labyrinth and the U-Store. The University does not own the Woolworth building.

The University did, however, upon Micawber’s closing, purchase the building at 112 Nassau Street, and with the help of some crafty engineering, the U-Store opened up the wall of that building to create a 6,500-square-foot space for Princeton University insignia apparel and gifts. “It makes sense to locate our merchandise where the customers gather on the town’s busiest street,” said U-Store president Jim Sykes.

Mr. Breitman said the University’s decision to sublease space to independent operations would best meet the needs of the school’s students and faculty. In the case of Labyrinth, which has a store in New Haven, and recently sold its New York City store shares to a former partner, Mr. Breitman said that Princeton University’s book needs would be best handled by “the experts.

“People who are book people, who are experts in the book field, can do this better than us trying to do this ourselves,” he said.

Dorothea von Moltke, who owns and manages Labyrinth with her husband Cliff Simms and co-owner Peter Simms, said the goal was to serve the University’s needs, as well as the needs of the greater Princeton community.

“The structure here is not so different than our other stores. I have found that one of the most rewarding aspects is that people gather here: it’s a community spot, and the divisions go away. People just come here to read,” Ms. von Moltke said Tuesday, having moved to Princeton with her husband in anticipation of Labyrinth’s opening here.

Though not yet fully stocked, the Labyrinth space has the appearance of an bibliophile’s haven. Seven thousand feet of shelves weave throughout the store amid a decided architectural upgrade from what had been Foot Locker and Children’s Place. Labyrinth will also use the approximately six-thousand-square-foot basement as its academic and textbook section, as well as a used book department and a community space.

For its part, the U-Store, which had struggled in recent years in finding an identity, will now be known solely as the go-to spot for everything Princeton University. Upscale insignia clothing, men’s and women’s sport clothing and children’s clothing will all be central to the new U-Store as it moves into the former locations of Children’s Place and what used to be the new books side of Micawber. An Einstein section will also be featured in the middle of the store.

Mr. Breitman, for his part, is hardly shy about showing his excitement for the project: “This is not happening in any other college town. It’s the perfect molding of great possibilities.”

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The U-Store, slated to open Thursday, November 15, will have a grand opening celebration on Wednesday, November 28, at 3 p.m. Labyrinth, with an opening date of Wednesday, November 14, will host a grand opening celebration on December 6, at 4:30 p.m.

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