A labyrinth implies a search and the experience of getting lost along the way,” says Dorothea von Moltke, who, along with her husband, Cliff Simms, and his brother Peter Simms, owns Labyrinth Books (www.labyrinthbooks.com), an independent bookstore in Princeton.
When I suggest that the role of independent bookstores such as Labyrinth Books is to promote the life of the mind within the fabric of community, she agrees and clarifies, “Grappling with the printed word is an incredible way of forming and testing ideas, of acquiring knowledge and convictions, of figuring out what matters to you and why, and of understanding what moves you.”
Tall and dark haired, with a gracious smile, von Moltke has a knack for articulating her point. Her partner, Simms, a seasoned bookseller (with a bookseller’s gift of being frighteningly well read, but nevertheless approachable) worries that the term “promoting the life of the mind" might sound a little too good to be true.
“Even as we keep hearing about lifetime learners,” he adds, “the reality points to uncritical literacy, lowered standards, and the abandonment of education as a truly universal project.”
More than two decades ago, von Moltke, then a graduate student at Columbia University, overheard Simms as he recommended books to his customers in Bookforum, a New York City bookstore he co-owned.
Intrigued, she found herself returning to hear Simms engage his customers in long, rich conversations. He would often suggest out-of-print titles. Sometimes, he would bring in a copy from home.
“At one point I found one of two volumes of ‘The Anniversaries’ by German writer Uwe Johnson for a great price and asked if he had the other,” she remembers. “He said he didn’t, but that the volume I had could stand on its own. I told him I disagreed, but would he like to go for a walk sometime. Bookstores have a real role to play as zones of encounter in our society. Let’s not forget that — and let’s defend them as such.”
The connection between von Moltke and Simms led to a romantic, intellectual, and business partnership, as well as two daughters. Their store represents an alternative approach to bookselling that balances excitement over the latest book, healthy shelf space for out-of-print or hard-to-find titles, and a deep commitment to representing marginalized voices.
Labyrinth was born near the Columbia University campus in New York City and expanded to the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2007 Princeton University approached the couple and Peter Simms, and so they sold their New York store to a third partner and opened Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street in the heart of town.
“For me,” says Von Moltke, “the underlying mission of the store bucks the current trend towards homogenization.”
As Von Moltke reminds me, a labyrinth without a minotaur is only a maze. What distinguishes a labyrinth is that there are surprise encounters with an unknown, with which we all must wrestle in order to truly find our way. Following is a lightly edited version of an interview that was first posted on Wild River Review (www.wildriverreview.com) in 2008:
WRR: Do you remember the first book you ever read?
Von Moltke: The first book in chapters that I remember vividly is “Mio My Son,” by Astrid Lindgren, which, like many of Lindgren’s books, is about the power of the imagination to console, about friendship, about a realm in between life and death, about loss and retrieval, and it’s about beautiful wild horses.
Simms: It would be wonderful if there had been a first book, like a first cause, to which a life-long love of reading could be traced back. Growing up in a working class family in the 1960s, for me, there was little time for reading and little value placed on non-utilitarian activities. I should add that at school I was taught in ways that would have crushed any nascent interest in reading.
WRR: Did you spend time in bookstores as a child/young adult?
Von Moltke: I did not spend much time in bookstores as a child, but rather books came to me: out of my parents’ shopping bags, by mail, or from my parents’ shelves. Over time, the line between children’s books and what my parents read began to thin out. I remember being home with the flu when I was maybe 14 and finding Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” on our shelves and — literally, feverishly — disappearing into that world. The main problem with this kind of early reading is that later I thought that I had read Dostoevsky full-stop and didn’t understand that if you read certain things early in life, you will need to re-read them; though perhaps we underestimate the extent to which most reading actually prepares and demands rereading.
Simms: When I was 14, over the summer I worked with my father, a window cleaner. The workday ended by 11 a.m., but my father had to spend another hour doing paperwork. Below his office, there was a bookstore in which I spent an hour or two every day during the early ’70s. Though it was a suburban store, it had a good collection of literature and history. I remember reading Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” and Copelston’s “History of Philosophy.” It was the first time I realized that there were other ways of escaping home rather than having to physically flee. It was a powerful experience-both empowering and overwhelming-but at that time in my life still too solitary a pursuit and pleasure for me to rely on more fully.
WRR: Describe for me your favorite bookstore experience — as a customer on the other side of the counter?
Simms: When I was 18, I started at Columbia University, where I felt that intellectually I didn’t belong. I met a guy, a real polymath, who had been at the university for nine years. He was brilliant but saw no reason to attend required classes if they were not captivating. He worked part-time in a wonderful bookstore called Salter’s, which was across from the university.
I went into that store every day for a month but because of its small size, you had to ask for most of the books from someone at the counter. Well, that was so intimidating to me that I would browse the books up front but never ask directly. One day this guy came around the counter and said “have you ever read Cortazar?” Not only hadn’t I read Cortazar, I’d never heard of him. The guy told me to wait there and brought me the collection “Blow-up and Other Stories” and said, “Read ‘Axolotl.’”
I bought the book and was blown away by that story, and then the rest of the collection. After that I moved on to many of the South American writers and through them wound my way back to Faulkner and American literature.
As a bookseller, I have always thought of this encounter as emblematic in its awkwardness, hesitations, and strange intimacy. Books are an encounter with the unfamiliar, with doubles, or others who are part of us but hidden, repressed, or underdeveloped. To my mind, the encounter with customers is exciting when it is on some level also unexpected.
WRR: How did you come to open the first Labyrinth store in New York City?
Von Moltke: We opened Labyrinth Books in New York in 1997 together with another partner. Cliff had been a bookseller to the Columbia neighborhood for a decade, during which time he had developed close relationships with many on the Columbia faculty.
So when Columbia began planning construction, the administration approached us to ask if we would like to rent half of a projected building for our bookstore. You have to remember that those were pre-Amazon days and although Columbia’s official bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, it was still a time when imagining an independent bookstore as part of the basic fabric of a neighborhood was not far-fetched.
WRR: Was expansion a part of the original vision?
Von Moltke: Certainly not — as you can see from the fact that we sold the New York store in order to open the one in Princeton and then closed our New Haven store as well. The idea now, too, is to be viable and sustainable rather than bigger and to build the stores from the bottom up, for which one needs to be there in the day-to-day.
The store in Princeton is the result of several members of the university administration believing that a local, independent bookstore with a focus on both academic and general interest books, and charged, too, with providing all the university’s book needs, has an important place in the cultural life of a university town. This move on the part of the university really amounts to bucking a pervasive national trend especially, but of course not only, in university towns. It entails an even stronger conviction today than it might have 15 years ago. It’s a tribute to the leadership of the university and, in particular, its president at the time, Shirley Tilghman, and its provost and current president, Chris Eisgruber.
WRR: Your philosophy on bookselling involves an appreciation of intellectual pursuits but is not necessarily “exclusive” and includes general interest titles. Can you talk about how you developed your mission — to promote the life of the mind?
Von Moltke: I like your formulation of this: to promote the life of the mind. That is what our projects have always been motivated by. But over the course of time since we opened Labyrinth Books in New York City, our work has gained urgency to me because I see the scope of what society at large considers important becoming more and more narrow.
It has become increasingly difficult to swim against these currents no matter what line of work one takes up. But what this means for booksellers centers on our role as curators of knowledge, with an emphasis on the representation of marginalized, underrepresented, or forgotten voices. It means creating environments in which discoveries can be made and where books can lead people astray in productive ways that expand their horizons of thought and feeling.
We also aim to foster a dialog through discussions of books between authors and readers at in-store events. It is important to be locally rooted in one’s community through collaborations with other civic and cultural groups or institutions who share the same values, pooling and sharing resources.
Simms: I wish we were in fact “promoting the life of the mind.” But I sometimes feel that in the current climate this actually sounds like something that the National Endowment for the Humanities does in order to fundraise. In the meantime, that same life of the mind is going through such profound changes that the phrase really masks its systematic undoing. For the store, I would therefore say that we have less of a grand mission statement and more of a desire to struggle against all forms of cultural capitulation by devoting ourselves to good books whether these are children’s books, trade books, or scholarly books.
WRR: We are in a publishing climate where the lifespan of a book is relatively short. Describe the behind-the-scenes life of remainders and publisher returns. How does this play out for readers?
Von Moltke: Speed-up in market cycles is not specific to books, but books in turn have not been exempt from this larger trend. Publishers release more and more titles while sales per title go down. As sales decrease, books are returned to publishers more quickly and in larger numbers.
For the publisher, the economic equation is driven by a book becoming a bestseller quickly after its release. Publishers’ resources are directed towards a narrow set of lead titles while backlist books tend to live on shelves in warehouses.
Chain bookstores in turn are particularly complicit in reducing the time and space allotted to titles: they sell prominent display space to publishers for the titles that are being pushed, and return to publishers (often within only a couple of months) books that they don’t see selling at a fast enough clip. These books are what are called remainders or publisher returns. Remainders then get sold at auction to wholesalers (or are sent to a pulper). This is where a book can get another lease on life.
Von Moltke: Through Labyrinth’s sister company, Great Jones Books, we have been buying hurts (books that have been damaged) and remainders since before we opened our first store. We were motivated both to bring books back into the public eye that should not have disappeared from the marketplace so quickly and to find a way to try to compete for discounts with chain stores and the Internet. A book that we buy wholesale at auction is one for which we can pass on considerable savings to the reader. Our own belief is that these books deserve to be treated with the same care as any front-list title: the gratification of being able to bring a book back to the table and shelves that we think may find an occasional but very specific reader is certainly equal to that of being able to represent the most current debates, or the newest collection of poems, or important novels in translation from small publishers.
WRR: You have said, “Anything can happen when you open a book and begin to talk about it.” Can you expand upon that?
Von Moltke: The emphasis here needs to be on “and talk about it.” It’s not a radical statement, really, it’s just a way of stating my belief in books as, still, the most fundamental tools in education. And a belief in shared ideas, shared knowledge, shared sensibilities as the soil for all kinds of relationships.
But “anything can happen” also means the stakes are high. You could make a friend. You could lose a friend. You could gain understanding and inspiration or you could become disillusioned. You could come up hard against all that you don’t know — hopefully all of the above.
Your child could discover the world of metaphor, or the literal and visceral experience of a word in her imagination could produce a week of troubled sleep. The idea has to be, I guess, “to begin to talk about the book" and to keep talking about it. Why? In order to intervene in a reality that goes beyond the confines of the self, in order to conjure dreams, and in order to prevent nightmares.
WRR: A recent New York Times article showed a family in which both parents were predictably reading books while their daughter was curled up on the next couch — engrossed in her laptop. Should it matter that we read books in the form of a creased paperback or feel the history of a dated cloth edition in our hands?
Von Moltke: I am no Luddite. I am not romantically encouraging that we head back to a pre-Internet, pre-cellphone age. The possibilities opened by these technologies are vast, and as a bookseller I am as dependent on them as the next person. But we should resist the complete co-optation of the “older” categories of “connection” by the digital age. In other words, the social sphere needs to be defended, and people need to be given a reason to leave their homes. This includes all sorts of cultural and educational forums. Bookstores are among them.”
WRR: In a 2002 interview with Bookselling This Week, former Los Angeles gang member, prison inmate, author, and lecturer Luis J. Rodriguez ("Always Running: La Vida Loca,” “Gang Days in L.A.,” and “Hearts and Hands: Making Peace in a Violent Time") declared that books saved his life. As a bookseller, how have you witnessed books changing people’s lives?
Von Moltke: There are many stories of people in distress finding courage, solace, conviction, or a reason to live in a book or in reading. These stories are incredibly moving. We are, in fact, dedicated to supporting prison teaching initiatives in New Jersey through book drives at the store and book donations from Great Jones Books. In particular, we have partnered with the remarkable NJSTEP program, and a visit last year to the library, which inmates at one of the participating prisons had organized from these book donations, was a great and rare privilege. But we have to remember that we belong to and are fundamentally selling books to a highly privileged subset of our highly privileged society. This is not to say that books don’t impact and change lives in this community as well, but the way books change our perspective can also be more subtle.
To circle back to Rodriguez: The correlation between education and reducing recidivism rates is well established and indisputable. I also see that there is work to be done to bring books to places where for all intents and purposes there really aren’t any. From Princeton you don’t have to travel far. These are all forms of activism in which I’m extremely interested.
WRR: What drew you to these kinds of social issues?
Von Moltke: Personally, I’m interested in the role that humanities education in particular can play. While practical, vocational training and resources are clearly indispensable to a productive work life, how does a person survive — I mean find the resilience for — the encounter with systemic inequalities and odds stacked sky high against her, especially at a time of economic downturn? I’m a little sick of so-called “inspirational literature" that tells the disadvantaged that they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I am more interested in everything that can teach people to become critical thinkers, to find and raise their voices. History, art, philosophy, music, literature, education are crucial for this. Rutgers University has launched a great program to take just this kind of learning into under-served communities.
Anything that Labyrinth or Great Jones Books can do to help these sorts of endeavors, we will do. Are we still acting as booksellers in this context? Not in any direct or immediate way. But, of course we have a stake in broad, full forms of literacy and in fostering reading precisely where it is most threatened.
WRR: When Luis J. Rodriguez moved back to Southern California after serving time in prison, he noticed that there weren’t any bookstores in his community. He felt it was important to create a bookstore where events such as poetry readings and musical events could help foster a sense of community. How can/should bookstores serve these communities?
Von Moltke: Well, you’ve given part of the answer, or Rodriguez has: certainly bookstores should become forums of discussion and encounters around books. Some of that simply happens in the day-to-day operations of a bookstore, but events are central here. In our experience the more the format of the event encourages conversation, the better. Which is why we always ask the author if he or she might want to invite a guest who will engage with the work. This way things often quickly come alive, not just for the audience but for the author as well. And there is generally a built-in openness to an exchange with the audience.
I’d like to add that when we talk about the ways in which an independent bookstore can create a sense of community around books and reading, it’s important to remember that this potential exists only to the extent that the staff of the store carries and embodies that same vision. We are very lucky in this regard. Our booksellers are without exception passionate readers who understand our project and work incredibly hard to realize and sustain it. This is true for those who receive the books in the basement — or order them in the office — as much as for those who work on the floor of the store researching books for customers.
WRR: How do you view the role of technology and the web as the world of publishing continues to rapidly change?
Simms: I am always astonished by our naivete about how radical the new dominant information technology is. This naivete is coupled with a belief that the new technology is a self-regulating, self-correcting system. The web may be a very efficient mechanism for selling books, but it is not helping to create another generation of book readers. If you want to understand the scope of the transformation we are undergoing, you will have to escape both its boosterism and its wholesale condemnation.
Whether people are advocates of the new technologies, or critics, technological determinism is pervasive, which I see as threatening to publishing. Publishers who have witnessed the agonies of the music companies in the face of similar circumstances seem not to have learned much. At a time when digital download of songs and file sharing have made music deflationary, music companies counter by greater policing and by raising prices of CDs. Even if a customer wants a certain CD, the 12 songs can be downloaded for $11.89, if not for free, while the CD costs $18.95 or more. The effect of this has been to destroy a number of viable outlets and independent record stores, thereby accelerating the trend to purchase online.
It is also true that the record companies could not have stopped the momentum of the new technologies, but their policies — such as pricing and discounts — could have created a more viable circumstance for some of their outlets.
In the book market, publishers have, while integrating E-book technologies, instituted policies similar to those of the music industry: at a time when books are deflationary (i.e. prices decline quickly, in this case due largely to the Internet), prices for new books have gone up and up, especially in the scholarly and academic market.
If publishers want a healthy book market, they need to create different policies for independent outlets before all outlets contract onto the web (which would not be sustainable for publishers). Readers still find out about books through mediums other than the web: you can browse online all you want, some things you have to stumble upon in a book store because they are put in your path.
WRR: How do you see the split between academic versus general interest books?
Von Moltke: The divisions between “academic” and “general interest” books are both real and imagined.
Certainly, every discipline in the academy has a vast body of knowledge, and in our stores we try to represent all that we can. However, we don’t think of the people who walk through our doors in terms of scholars vs. non-scholars, and it should never feel like you need an advanced degree to browse our sections. I regard those academic writers most highly who don’t lose sight of what is at stake in their work in broader social, political, or cultural terms. And I regard those writers most highly whose thinking or imaginative reach is deeply rooted. For an engaged reader of any walk of life this is where the divisions between “scholarly” and “general” begin to fade.
At any rate, everyone seems to meet up in Current Events books, in Kids books, in Cookbooks, in Art books, or in Fiction and Poetry books. You will see that in terms of the layout of the Princeton store (where we have the luxury of ample space), these sections make up the midriff of the store itself.
WRR: You have talked about the importance of going against the grain, especially the growing tendency toward an “increasing privatization of experience.” How would you describe this culture of privatization and how does/should one work to counteract it?
Von Moltke: There is no question that we are undergoing a profound sociological transformation due to the role technology plays in everyone’s life. The sum effect of the pervasiveness of computers, iPods, iPads, and cellphones is a contraction of experience into a sphere where encounters between people are highly mediated and very often a bit anonymous. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing not to have to leave the home to search for culture or entertainment.
Conversely, I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to be inconvenienced. How about this as a definition of friendship: the desire and willingness to allow oneself to be inconvenienced by the demands of the other and for the other to want and accept being inconvenienced by us?
Virtual spaces may be creating a new kind of community, but you can certainly only enter this community out of the solitary confines of the minimal and private space of your desk or, increasingly, your bed. And when you look over your shoulder, there’s still nobody there.
#b#About Kim Nagy and Wild River Review:#/b#
Kim Nagy was raised Lawrenceville and earned a BA in history at Rider University, where her mother worked as a librarian, union leader (American Association of University Professors), and pioneer in information architecture. Nagy became involved in Wild River Review, an online journal, after a career in publishing that included stints with the Princeton University Press, Thomson (Routledge) in London, WW Norton in New York, and Peterson’s (Thomson) in Lawrenceville, where she worked in marketing digital content. “But I was still itching to get back to my own writing, and I kept writing every day and seeking new venues to publish not only poetry but prose,” she says.
Two years later, after Nagy’s daughter was born, she started freelancing and began to provide marketing and PR services to Joy Stocke, who was about to launch a new publication. Says Nagy: “When she told me about her experience in literary journalism, her books of poetry, her travels to Greece and Turkey, and her decades of experience bringing writers together, she gave me an example of what was possible through talent, tenacity, and dedication.”
Stocke and Nagy’s Wild River Review was founded in 2006. The journal’s website, www.wildriverreview.com, describes the review as an online magazine, “committed to scouting for the best writing, encouraging submissions, and exploring unique and controversial issues. To that end, we work one on one with new writers to bring their work to the highest literary and journalistic standards.” Wild River Review has been praised for “exceptionally interesting interviews” by Utne Reader and called “a hub for artists everywhere” by founder of the Webby Awards, Tiffany Slain.
Says Nagy: "It was and remains a gift to work with Joy, such a generous mentor and kindred spirit. We now celebrate Wild River Review’s ninth anniversary, and as we get ready to unveil a whole new website and business plan, I am thrilled with our team of contributors, outrageously talented staff, a warm and fiercely intelligent readership, as well as the critical acclaim our publication has achieved."