Serious reading has returned to Nassau Street in the space formerly occupied by the late, lamented Micawber Books. Fans of the homegrown readers’ refuge will be slightly disappointed with the new, modern Labyrinth Books, lacking as it does the warmth and cozy feel of the old shop. But the new store does bring a much needed destination back to the streetscape and adds much to complete the feel of downtown Princeton as a place to promenade.
Labyrinth offers a cross between the ye olde village bookshoppe and the college textbook store, offering a smaller, but extensive, selection of titles a la the big box bookstores on Route 1. This, more serious, tone is not too surprising given the fact that Labyrinth is now essentially the student bookstore of Princeton University. But for the rest of us, there now is no need to brave the malls to find the newest releases, and despite the lack of a Barnes and Noble-style cafe, a cup of coffee and croissant are available at several locations just down the street.
Upon entering Labyrinth, the displays emphasize food for the intellectual palate. Your first course is tables laden with new releases in history, politics and current events. Titles as diverse as I Am America and So Can You, by Steven Colbert vie with the latest scholarly analyses of colonial economics and the role of America in the development of the Middle East. Each table is an eclectic mix, mostly serious but with the occasional book of New Yorker cartoons. There would be few topics or genres, fiction or non, lacking on the numerous stacks.
Further into the ultra modern, industrial chic interior, you find tables of art and architecture. There are the occasional arm chairs but they aren’t overstuffed oases of comfort and are few and far between. They aren’t meant for lingering perusals of the latest hot fiction or the odd book jacket art that catches your fancy. (Be honest, we all judge a book we’ve never heard of by its cover.)
The layout of the store is distinctly not maze-like, reinforcing the sense that this is a place where customers know what they want. There is less chance of a happy discovery around a corner in this streamlined space. Skylights in the high posted ceiling do provide some natural illumination but the overall feel of the expanse is cool and utilitarian. Jazz floats through the air to accompany the browsing.
The children’s corner also has a few little chairs and tables for the kids but it is not a place to play. The day I was there, my sense was that the space was a bit too picked-up, having no evidence of books flung about in childish abandon as novice readers search for beloved favorites or seek out new tales of adventure.
I hunted for a copy of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a classic fairy tale that I have been collecting for the various interpretations, especially of the ending, and the artwork that it inspires. I finally had to seek help from the information desk and together the helpful clerk and I found out that fairy tales and myths are filed by country of origin. Not knowing exactly what modern eastern European country would lay claim to this ancient tale, we had a bit of a search to find their one version.
In the coming months, author events will be hosted. The first of these will be held on Thursday, December 13, at 5:30 and features Princeton resident Alicia Suskin Ostriker, the author of For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book. We’ve missed the excitement of meeting authors in an intimate venue downtown ever since Micawber’s stopped having readings and this void may be filled in the future by the new kid on the block.
Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-497-1600. www.labyrinthbooks.com.