Cartoonist Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth) and journalist Chris Hedges in conversation at Labyrinth Books Dec. 20, 2011. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
Cartoonist Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth) and journalist Chris Hedges in conversation at Labyrinth Books Dec. 20, 2011. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
Dorothea von Moltke and her husband, Cliff Simms, opened Labyrinth Books in 2007. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
Dorothea von Moltke and her husband, Cliff Simms, opened Labyrinth Books in 2007. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

For a few years now, Dorothea von Moltke has watched Princeton University freshmen stop into Labyrinth Books for the first time and try to make sense of their surroundings.

“They know it’s not a library. They know it’s not the Barnes and Noble from the strip mall they’re used to,” she said. “But they can’t quite figure out what it is.”

What it is is books—shelves and shelves of books, many chosen for their content and not their marketability—and not much else. The independent bookshop is situated across from the university, adjacent to the former Nassau Street site of another independent operation, Micawber Books, which closed in 2007.

Von Moltke and husband Cliff Simms opened Labyrinth later that year. They leave the bells and whistles, not to mention televisions and washing machines and video games, to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Von Moltke acknowledges that Amazon has the edge when it comes to bestsellers and new releases, and she’s seen customers browse with smartphones in hand, then walk out the door, presumably to make their purchases online.

But rather than cowering, she and Simms have found ways Labyrinth can hold their own against powerful competition.

It starts with the books. While chain stores and Amazon tend to offer substantial discounts on new books and bestsellers—what’s known as the front list—Labyrinth competes by maximizing the value of the backlist.

Simms and von Moltke keep a watch out in the marketplace for former bestsellers and prizewinners that the major stores have given up on, and obtain them, often at a discount that they look to pass on to customers. It’s not that they’re bad books, in fact they’re often great books. But chain bookstores are constantly making room for the next new thing.

So Labyrinth is selling Jeffrey Eugenides’ new bestseller, The Marriage Plot, for the hardcover list price of $28—about twice what Amazon is asking. At the same time, an underappreciated classic like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and dozens more like it are on the sale tables for $7.98 or less. In the end, von Moltke says, you can buy both the front list and the backlist at Labyrinth and spend the same as you would at the larger store.

Labyrinth also takes advantage of Princeton’s considerable literary and academic resources by hosting frequent readings and conversations at the store. Von Moltke handles the scheduling of events, which are often but not always tied to new releases and author tours.

Despite a budget of zero, 2011 guests included Colm Toibin, Chang-rae Lee, John McPhee, Marilynne Robinson, James Richardson, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates, C.K. Williams, Sheila Kohler, Edmund White, Lauren B. Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Cornel West and many more.

Von Moltke said she tries to pair guests with presenters who know their work, which she said gets dialogs started more quickly and is more interesting for the authors. For example, cartoonist Mr. Fish (also known as Dwayne Booth) and journalist Chris Hedges appeared together Dec. 20 to promote Fish’s cartoon collection Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People.

The history of Labyrinth books is itself somewhat labyrinthine, and overgrown with ivy. The original store was opened in New York City in 1997, serving the Columbia University community. In 2005, Simms and von Moltke opened a store in New Haven, Conn., home of Yale University.

More and more colleges and universities are contracting their bookselling operations to Barnes and Noble, and Yale is no exception. Citing difficult business conditions, von Moltke and Simms closed the New Haven location in May 2011.

In contrast, Princeton University was instrumental in closing the void left behind by Micawber. When Micawber’s owners put their store up for sale, the university purchased it and approached Labyrinth about coming to town to replace it.

“We obviously also had a relationship at Columbia, but it was the first time a university articulated a vision for the role that independent bookstores can have in a university town that was also our vision,” von Moltke said. “I can’t think of another university where the trend wasn’t that an independent was leaving and the chain was moving in.”

Around the same time that they opened the Princeton store, von Moltke and Simms sold their Columbia location stake to partner Chris Doeblin. The store is still there, but is now known as Book Culture, leaving Simms and von Moltke today with the one retail shop and the wholesale warehouse.

Von Moltke hopes four years in Princeton gives those bewildered freshmen enough time to adjust their thinking of what a bookstore can be.

“By the time they graduate, they should know whenever they travel, they should find the local café and they should find the local bookstore,” she said.

For a list of upcoming events or to order books online, go to labyrinthbooks.com.