Winter Storm Jonas was about to bring near-blizzard conditions to central New Jersey, but Dorothea von Moltke, right, co-owner of Labyrinth Books in Princeton, was thinking about the warm months of April, May, and even mid-June.
That’s one way to shrug off the weather hysteria: focus instead on “All the President’s Gardens,” a new book due from Marta McDowell, whom von Moltke hopes to welcome to Labyrinth on June 11.
The spring 2016 events series list was still in the works as von Moltke shared her thoughts about planning the occasions and selecting the many distinguished authors appearing at the store on Nassau Street.
“Of course, we see many of the new (books) that come out, and events are centered around this, but we are also focused on making a balanced event season,” she says. “There are many issues that are important to us, such as social justice, the environment, current events, fiction and poetry, LGBT issues, popular science, etc. We try to make sure there’s a breadth of issues that are important and current in the culture, but we also simply look for good books and good authors.”
“Much of the programming comes from Princeton-related publications, like professors with new books — and it’s amazing how many good books the faculty write each year,” von Moltke says. “It’s also crucial to be responsive to the community, and I only book an event for which I can find an audience. Although, after many years, it’s become easier to know where to look for an audience here.”
On tap are a variety of authors whose works run the gamut of subject matter from presidential gardens, to the music business, to astrophysics, to African American studies. In short, there will be a little something for almost everyone.
“Our audiences tend to be a mixture of the university and the larger community, which I believe extends from Princeton to Rutgers and New Brunswick, as well as Trenton, even to Philadelphia,” von Moltke says. “These events are really important in reaching out and building communities.”
In addition, as Labyrinth Books seeks to help inspire curious, book-loving children in the community, the store has been cultivating its kids’ events and programming, partnering with the Princeton Public Library and a handful of Princeton public schools, as well as JaZams, the toy, music and bookstore, which some might consider Labyrinth’s rival for young readers.
“We figured if we pooled our resources, the publishers would send us some of their bigger name authors, so we launched the Princeton Kids Event Coalition and had our first author visit in January,” von Moltke says.
The guest of honor was Chris Grabenstein, the Random House/Penguin best-selling author of “The Island of Dr. Libris” and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library,” among others.
“(Chris) went to two schools — the middle school and Johnson Park — and in the evening he came to Labyrinth to do a reading and signing,” she says. “We shared the profits from book sales (with JaZams). It was a hoot, and it was very well attended, so the Coalition hopes to do a lot more programming like this.”
Von Moltke, who co-owns Labyrinth Books with her husband, Cliff Simms, and brother-in-law, Peter Simms, opened the store in 2007, when they still had a sister store in New Haven, Connecticut. There was also a Labyrinth Books near Columbia University in New York City, but the couple sold it to a partner.
“We ended up selling the New York store in order to be able to devote ourselves to the Princeton project; we also closed the New Haven store in 2010 and moved our wholesale warehouse to Pennington,” von Moltke says.
She refers to Great Jones Books, the wholesale seller of very good condition, discounted, quality remainders and publisher returns. “We sell to other book sellers in the United States and around the world, and we keep what we like best,” von Moltke says, emphasizing that owning Great Jones along with Labyrinth helps supply the latter with hard-to-find titles.
“We buy remainders from publishers, and we also buy private collections, and this allows us to discount many of our books at the store and on our website,” she says. “If Labyrinth has a ‘brand,’ it’s that you can find books here that you can’t find elsewhere, and they are often deeply discounted.”
When you’re speaking with the owner of a brick-and-mortar store, filled with traditional books (“bound-paper artifacts” as author Gary Shteyngart wryly dubbed them), the big questions are about how digital technology is challenging such a business. Surely von Moltke and Simms have had some sleepless nights since the Kindle and its kin have become popular?
“Absolutely, we’ve been concerned, and in important ways,” von Moltke says. “We do all the course books for the university, and as the students are increasingly natives of a digital culture, their buying habits have changed. But they know they can find what they need here, and, in addition, thanks to our close relationship with Princeton University, course books are discounted 30 percent. So to an extent we were able to stem the tide of students just doing Internet buying.”
“But also, interestingly, it’s becoming more and more clear that, given a choice and if price is not a factor, students prefer to read off the printed page,” she continues. “Studies in neuroscience have shown that (reading) retention and comprehension on the page is better than on the screen. Yes, e-books are here to stay, but it’s clear that print remains a fantastic technology, a strong and viable medium, so things are finding their balance.”
“Customers have lots of options, but we’re confident that the idea of supporting the ‘local bookstore’ has remained important for our readers and certainly, especially, here in Princeton,” von Moltke says. “Yes, the recession hurt, but the buy-local movement has been an important component in keeping us afloat. Of course there’s also the university.”
The fact that Princeton University invited von Moltke and Simms to launch Labyrinth in town is quite unusual, and von Moltke reflects that many other colleges have simply brought in a Barnes and Noble or some other chain store to partner with.
“Princeton University approached us at a moment when their own co-op didn’t want to sell books anymore,” she says. “Micawber was a very nice independent bookstore, and the university asked Logan (Fox, the owner) first, but he said he was looking to retire. So the university would have been in a college town without a bookstore.”
“They did something very unusual and progressive: they recognized that we had built community bookstores that served Columbia and Yale, and we found that we had a shared vision concerning the role that an independent and scholarly bookstore could play in a university town,” von Moltke continues. “So we have this unique dual identity: we sell all the course books for the university and are a scholarly bookstore, but we’re also a general interest bookstore.”
Von Moltke says this distinctive, multi-faceted identity has definitely lifted Labyrinth through the recession and helped defy the trend of online book-buying. In addition, she notes, “people like to come to bookstores.”
“We work hard sourcing from Great Jones to pass along savings,” von Moltke says. “We buy books from private collections every day — and Princeton is a great place for this, incidentally. We have a big used-book inventory and a varied and deep (new) inventory, which is not just driven by best sellers; and we make things as affordable as possible. So if people come in to browse and they find a bargain, they might not mind paying full price on another book they’re also interested in.”
One wonders what this well-read woman thinks about how social media and other pop-culture trends are affecting this generation of writers. When everything is not only briefer but often abbreviated, what’s a thoughtful writer to do?
“That’s a complicated and interesting question and I think about it a lot,” von Moltke says. “It’s a transformation (for writers), and we’ve had many conversations about the future of long-form writing. The shift is slow, but it’s real and we can feel it.”
“I do think attention spans are changing and how we acquire knowledge is changing, and over time this may change the way we think and how we write,” she adds. “On the one hand, you see long-form writing being threatened by digital culture, but then you see the New York Times producing more long-form investigative pieces than they have in a long time. And we are a store that will never under-represent the long-form writing, the books that make you think hard and think deeply.”
A fraternal twin born in Buffalo, New York, in 1968, von Moltke was only about three years old when the family moved to Europe.
Von Moltke’s late father was a professor of medieval literature at the University of Buffalo and a peace-making liaison between the faculty and student body during the volatile late 1960s. He was offered tenure at a very young age, but instead moved the family to Germany, where both sets of grandparents had been born.
“He moved us there with no clear plan, so I find this quite gutsy,” von Moltke says. “My father spent a little time on a biography about my grandfather, who was important in the German resistance (during World War II). Later, he founded the Institute for European Environmental Policy in Bonn, and this was very early on in the environmental movement.”
“He expanded the institute and built it up, but then my father decided to shift his focus to environmental policies in the United States, working with nonprofits, non-governmental agencies (NGOs), and other advocacy groups,” she continues. “So we moved back to the U.S., to Vermont; my father became a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, but he spent the majority of his time traveling and helping to shape environmental policy. He went to where the issues were most urgent, and so by the early 2000s, his focus was on China and developing nations. It was clear that environmental work was what he was meant to do.”
Von Moltke’s mother was a busy stay-at-home mom, but once the children were grown, she became a radical environmental activist and was arrested for trying to shut down a nuclear power plant. Her most recent arrest was part of a protest against the Keystone pipeline.
After the von Moltkes returned to the U.S., Dorothea graduated from high school six months early, which allowed her to live in Aix en Provence in France for half a year, where she taught German and studied theater. From 1986 to 1990 she attended Yale University, spending her junior year abroad in Bologna, Italy, at the university there. She graduated from Yale summa cum laude with a B.A in political science.
Von Moltke then moved to East Berlin, just as the Berlin Wall had come down, where she worked in publishing and then got involved with immigrant-rights issues, becoming managing director of the Working Group Against Xenophobia in Eastern Germany.
She returned to the U.S. to do graduate studies in German literature at Columbia University, earning her Ph.D. in 2002, with a dissertation titled, “Freedom and Failure: an Exploration of the Laconic as Subjectivity and Aesthetics.”
Meanwhile, von Moltke had met her husband, Cliff, who was co-owner of the store where she bought her text books. “Together, we first opened Great Jones Books, the wholesale company, then we opened our first (retail) store, Labyrinth Books, on 112th Street near Columbia University in 1997,” von Moltke says. “Our first daughter, Nora, was born six weeks before we opened that store, and our second daughter, Thalia, was born in 2000. Then, in 2005, we opened the store in New Haven, near Yale.”
Von Moltke, who is fluent in German, French, and Italian, adds that she has remained engaged with social justice issues over the years, which is reflected, in part, in the events programming at Labyrinth Books. However, don’t ask her to name just one or two authors she is excited about presenting this spring.
“I care about so many,” von Moltke says. “For example, there will be an event in March (Thursday, March 10), which will be timely in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement: Eddie Glaude, author of ‘Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,’ and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (‘From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation’), will be here, along with Imani Perry, all three from Princeton University. The conversation should be very exciting, addressing questions that are crucial right now.”
“There are also a couple of events that seem right for an election year, with points to be made along opposing sides, concerning how democratic the political process in the U.S. has or has not been and is today,” she says. “I like to create a forum where you can agree to disagree.”
Since this is a presidential election year, perhaps there is a spate of books coming out supporting and denigrating the candidates? When asked if she’s seen this and other trends among the newest crop of publications, von Moltke demurs, saying it’s not so meaningful to make pronouncements and predictions.
“I can’t say ‘2016 will be the year of this or that,’ since there are a lot of issues that are important to our times and culture, and we work hard to represent those in the store,” she says. “Because we’re not a chain store, we don’t just get handed what’s trendy, we choose the books we sell, and we reflect the debates that are important to our culture.”
“We also have a big backlist of titles, so we can represent the history of certain debates and of thought,” von Moltke adds. “We work against a culture of amnesia.”
Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. www.labyrinthbooks.com or 609-497-1600.
Upcoming Writer Events
Friday, February 26, 6 p.m.: Emerging Writers Series with New York-based novelist and curator of the Dear Reader Series at Ace Hotel, Alexander Chee, and Lewis Center for the Arts creative writing students Martina Fouquet, Hannah Hirsh, Charlotte Maher Levy, and Maya Wahrman reading from their work.
Wednesday, March 2, 6 p.m.: “Planet/Cuba: Art, Culture, and the Future of the Island,” a conversation between Rachel Price, Princeton University professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese and author of “The Object of the Atlantic: Concrete Aesthetics in Cuba, Brazil and Spain 1868-1968,” and Michael Wood, Princeton professor emeritus of comparative literature and author of books on literature and film, including “The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction” and “Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
Tuesday, March 8, 6 p.m.: Princeton-based novelist Dexter Palmer reads from his new book, “Version Control: A Novel.”
Wednesday, March 9, 6 p.m.: “Protest Music after Fukushima & Radicalism and Music,” a conversation with Princeton music faculty member Noriko Manabe, who studies both the Japanese antinuclear movement and Japanese hip-hop, reggae, and EDM, and City College of New York professor Jonathan Pieslak, author of “Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War.”
Thursday, March 10, 6 p.m.: “Race and Democracy in the U.S.,” a conversation with members of the Princeton University Department of African American Studies: Eddie S. Glaude Jr., department chair and author of “Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in 19th-century Black America”; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor and author of “Rats, Riots, and Revolution: Black Housing in the 1960s”; and Imani Perry, professor and author of “Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop.”