A Complete Range of Reading Opportunities Is the Hallmark of Acclaimed Labyrinth Books
BEST BOOKS: “We are an independent, family-owned bookstore, with books, new and used, both of general and of specialized interest, including many books you can’t find elsewhere. As an official bookstore for Princeton University, we also specialize in academic books for students and scholars.” Dorothea von Moltke, an owner of Labyrinth Books, is shown in one of her favorite places.
By Jean Stratton
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
It certainly is true that a book can take the reader to a magical place, on an exciting adventure, or into a territory filled with new, perhaps unexpected, ideas and treasures.
As Dorothea von Moltke of Labyrinth Books explains about the store’s name, “We think of it as getting lost in order to find what you didn’t expect.”
Opened in 2007 at 122 Nassau Street, the store is owned by brothers Cliff and Peter Simms and Dorothea von Moltke.
After a number of years in New York City, with a location near Columbia University, Labyrinth had an opportunity to become the official bookstore for Princeton University. Princeton seems to be the perfect match not only for the academic books, but also for an independent bookstore offering a wide variety of books for all readers, notes von Moltke.
“So many people here support an independent bookstore and see its value in the community,” says von Moltke. “What is different about Labyrinth is the combination we offer. We are both a community and scholarly bookstore, and carry new books across all genres and disciplines, used and rare books, kids’ books, remaindered and bargain books, as well as course books. Because of how we source many of our books, I would estimate that about 70 percent of what we sell is discounted in some way.”
Readers will find books in all categories: contemporary and classic literature, poetry, current events, history, philosophy, theology, mysteries, cookbooks, and comic books. A constantly changing inventory ensures that customers will always discover both the latest — and unexpected — reading opportunities.
Keeping up-to-date with this is a challenge, adds von Moltke. “So many books are being published in the U.S. that the book buying is an ongoing, big task, and books are never one-size-fits-all. At Labyrinth, this work is shared: our general manager Virginia Harabin is also our front list buyer. Our office manager Annie Farrell is also our kids buyer; our floor manager Stephen Walter is also our remainder buyer. He and my husband Cliff Simms together are our used book buyers.
“So you can see that I am not exaggerating when I say that our staff is the backbone pf the store. Without exception, and whether they are on the floor and customer-facing, or working in receiving or the office, they are discerning readers and ‘people of the book.’
“In the past year, we have bought several extraordinary large private collections, which we have begun to work into our used and rare book offerings,’ continues von Moltke. “So the supply of used books coming in is going to enrich every section in the store in the months ahead.”
Perhaps less known is the fact that the company also owns and runs a book-remainder wholesale business in Pennington — Great Jones Books.
“Here, we buy the best of publishers’ overstock in large quantities, which we sell to bookstores all over the U.S. and the world, but we keep the best for Labyrinth,” she explains. “In fact, Labyrinth could not be the store that it is without us also being wholesalers with the supply of quality books that gives us books that have disappeared from the shelves of bookstores elsewhere. It is meaningful to us that in this way, we both extend the life of these books and make them affordable to readers.”
Labyrinth has many regular loyal customers who support the store with enthusiasm, and this was also evident during the height of COVID-19, reports von Moltke.
“We were closed from March to August of 2020, but we had an online operation and also curbside pick-up. We are very grateful for the continuing community support we experienced.
“We also have a core community of colleagues with other businesses in town, and this is an enjoyable part of being here.”
The book business, especially for bricks and mortar establishments, is filled with many challenges. Online competition, certainly, is an ongoing major threat, but in addition, von Moltke points out a new and local consideration that is creating its own issues.
“Currently, there are the challenges of multiple, simultaneous construction projects downtown, which are expected to last two years. Merchants, Labyrinth included, are already seeing the impact of this upheaval. It is really a serious problem, which not all of us with businesses downtown are likely to survive, since traffic cannot circulate and parking has gotten even more difficult. Increasingly, residents and visitors are staying away.
“Good ideas have been put forward for how to improve the situation, but so far the town is not taking them up. Before all of this, business was beginning to return to pre-COVID levels. We really want and need to get beyond this construction debacle, and be able to do the work we love to do.”
As she looks ahead, von Moltke is pleased that Labyrinth is continuing its special events programs, consisting of author lectures, conversations, and signings.
“I always look forward to these, and it has also been a way to partner with the public library and other community organizations,” she says. “We try to have two or three events each week.”
Labyrinth also has strong commitments to social justice work. The store has built libraries in New Jersey prisons, and continues to look for ways to extend this engagement. It supports the work of Princeton Mutual Aid, and collects food and clothing for Arm In Arm and the Rescue Mission of Trenton year-round. The events programming, too, reflects these commitments.
In addition to its book selection, Labyrinth provides a selection of stationery, greeting cards, puzzles, games, mugs, tote bags, and other gift items.
A membership program, available for $15 a year, offers 10 percent discounts on purchases, advance notice of upcoming events, and special holiday gifts. The store’s extensive website will soon be upgraded, reports von Moltke, and member discounts will also be offered online. In addition, gift cards are available.
The spacious store, with its two floors filled with books of every kind, is conveniently arranged with plenty of room to roam. Customers of all ages are seen browsing and taking time to make a favorite purchase.
A special Discovery Den offers a cozy kids’ section, a wonderful spot indeed for the youngest readers to discover the joys of reading.
Dorothea von Moltke is happy to be able to do the work she loves and in a town that she admires.
“I am always excited to see all the new books coming in, and we are continually surprised by the wealth of cultural programing in town both on campus and off. It really is exceptional, and offers endless opportunities for collaboration.”
Labyrinth Books is open Monday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (609) 497-1600. Website: labyrinthbooks.com.