University Press Blog Tour (#UPWeek), A Conversation with the Co-owner of Labyrinth Books

This post is part of the University Press Week Blog Tour (A complete blog tour schedule is also available here). After reading this Q&A, please head over to the next stop on the tour at Indiana University Press.

While local, independent bookstores seem to be an endangered species, they remain a key partner for University Presses. For this reason, we were thrilled when Dorothea von Moltke, co-owner of Princeton’s local book store Labyrinth Books, agreed to participate in a quick interview about how she views university presses and what our books mean for her business.


Dorothea von Moltke, co-owner of Labyrinth Books


PUP: Labyrinth is a fixture in Princeton and you have also opened stores near Yale and Columbia. You are not a “university book store,” but you are a “university town book store” which seems to be a unique niche that influences everything from your events program to the books on your shelves. Was this a conscious decision to go into university towns and why?

Dorothea von Moltke: Oh very much so. Fundamentally, what kind of bookstore you have will always depend on what kind of readers you are. My husband, Cliff Simms, and I are students of the humanities in particular and my brother-in-law, Peter Simms, who is also co-owner, shares our broad interests across the literary and visual arts.  Proximity to the intellectual and cultural life of a university has mattered, moreover, to us personally from the outset.

But the idea has always been to be a two-way conduit between a university and its broader context, or at least an intersection for the two. Our events programming is, as a result, very eclectic, ranging from scholarly discussions around academic titles, to poetry and literary readings, civic forums or film screenings. Ideally, not everyone already knows everyone else in the room on these occasions.

PUP: Labyrinth offers best-sellers alongside a deep list of academic titles. How heavily do University Presses figure into your business model? How do you select the university press books you are going to sell?

DvM: Our ambition is in fact to carry both a broad range of front list titles and deep backlist sections from University Presses as well as trade publishers. We spend a lot of time with all University Press catalogs in ordering, inviting input from all booksellers with particular interests and knowledge in specific fields. One of the real rewards of being in the book industry comes from the fact that there are lots of great people both in publishing and at other independent stores — over time, these become relationships that also feed into what you know and how you buy. We then invite publishers’ reps to the store for conversations with our staff about the current season’s titles so that there is a more generalized familiarity with the inventory and a chance for comments and questions.

Our commitment to the backlist, meaning to books that have been around for more than 9 months, means that we also source academic and other remainders with a lot of determination so as to bring things back to the shelves and tables that the market may have given up elsewhere.

PUP: What are some of the breakout, or particularly memorable, university press books you’ve sold in recent years? Could you share any anecdotes about author events?

DvM: What to choose? Certainly, Peter Brown’s new book this fall, Through the Eye of a Needle, one of your books at PUP, is exciting to see strong sales on. This is a 806 page social and economic history of the church in late antiquity by one of this country’s foremost classicists and it is selling incredibly well. We’ll hold an event in December, which will be a dialog between Peter Brown and Elaine Pagels. I can’t imagine a more perfect pair for talking about the social and political aspects of early Church history. It is true that Princeton University Press works hard to keep prices affordable, which certainly makes a difference. This is an example of real buzz around an academic title in our store.

I could name lots of other titles that have done well, but our focus throughout the store and nowhere more than with University Press books is to give books a long life. They don’t need to be flashy, they don’t need to sell fast, they just need to still seem relevant to a deeper understanding of our past, present, or future. By the same token, it isn’t always the event that brings an audience of 250 that is most memorable: I think back to a conversation with Leo Bersani about his book Intimacies (University of Chicago Press) more often than I think back to last spring’s event with Slavoj Žižek for God in Pain: Inversions of the Apocalypse (Seven Stories Press) and his big book on Hegel, Less Than Nothing (Verso). Both were exciting, but the small event with Bersani was full of surprises and felt like a seminar more than anything else.

PUP: Independent book stores and university presses seem to have been thrown into the same boat in the broad narrative of the future of the trade. I can no more imagine a world without a Labyrinth Books as I can a world without a Princeton University Press. What do you think the future holds for book-selling, and more specifically for academic book-selling?

DvM: You know: I can imagine a future without Labyrinth Books. It isn’t so hard to do. That doesn’t mean I think it’s imminent or inevitable. But already a project such as ours can exist only on the margins of the culture at large; we are extremely lucky in this town and in our partnership with Princeton University. I can think of a handful of contexts in which our model might be reproducible but not many, which is how you know that what you do can only exist outside of what is considered the mainstream. But outside of the mainstream is, for us, anyway the place to be.

Especially in conversations about e-books, there is often a tendency to talk as if the future is something pre-formed that just hasn’t made it here yet rather than that which we all bring about and shape. So again: I think there is room for invention and reinvention within a horizon of narrowing possibilities.

I see University Presses re-imagining themselves constantly as well. The e-book is, to my mind, actually perfect for many academic monographs. Other University Press books will, I believe, be precisely the kinds of books that many will want to continue to read in print. The trend towards e-books is, as you know, not at all even across all genres of books. It’s in this kind of unevenness that bookstores and University Presses both have to find their equilibrium, by definition a challenging task, but an interesting one.

PUP: Some bookstores are already making the leap to selling e-books. I apologize for not knowing this already, but does Labyrinth sell eBooks? Is that something you would consider if you don’t? Can the role of a bookstore as “tastemaker” and curator of books continue into the e-market?

DvM: I think that increasingly independent bookstores with whom we are in regular dialog and who have tested this–and as we are part of a wonderful network called the Independent Booksellers Consortium there are many–are increasingly coming to a similar conclusion: the idea that independent bookstores have a role to play in the selling of e-books is a kind of mirage: you think there is a purpose there, though profitability is certainly not it, but perhaps customer retention could be?, and then it turns out there is, effectively, none.

The experiment between Google Books and independent bookstores via the American Bookseller’s Association, which was much discussed last year, has not been a success. As part of our general service in providing coursebooks, we certainly are able to and do meet any demand from professors to source e-books for their students, but you’d be amazed at how rare those requests are.

PUP: Existing in a “university town” offers unique opportunities for collaboration and partnerships, can you describe a few of the more successful initiatives?

DvM: I can’t think of much that we do that doesn’t involve collaborations with others. The University itself is in many ways our most important partner and we have, for instance, been able to re-tool how we buy and sell coursebooks as a result. But we constantly join with departments on campus, with arts or other cultural organizations around town and in the area, with schools, with civic groups between New Brunswick and Trenton, and simply with folks in town who come to us with an idea for an event or maybe for a window display, etc.

Currently, there is an incredibly active handful of people connected to a church in Princeton, who have mobilized broadly to read Michelle Alexander’s hugely important book The New Jim Crow in the community and to schedule programming around the issues of deep, structural and continued racism in the US. Of course, this is something we want to participate in in any way we can, pooling resources for getting word out about this programming, heavily discounting the book to readers, etc.


More about Labyrinth Books:


Labyrinth Books is an acclaimed academic and community bookstore located in Princeton, NJ. Princeton residents and visitors know the store can always be relied upon to provide recent books that form the backbone of current debates both inside and outside of the universities. But, they are equally committed to the longevity of books, so they stock backlist titles with the greatest of care, mindful that “kites rise against the wind, not with it.” (L. Mumford)

Labyrinth strives to be a place in which to get lost and discover what you didn’t know you were looking for. Through its robust program of in-store events and ongoing collaborations with local partners including Princeton University Press, the store remains an important site for the exchange of ideas.


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