PRINCETON - INTERVIEW - Dorothea von Moltke and Cliff Simms:
Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part 1
Photo by Dale Cotton
“A labyrinth implies a search and the experience of getting lost along the way,” says Dorothea von Moltke, who, along with her business partner and husband Clifford Simms, owns Labyrinth Books (www.labyrinthbooks.com) independent bookstores in Princeton, New Jersey; and New Haven, Connecticut.
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.”
Fifteen years ago, von Moltke, then a graduate student at Columbia University, overheard Simms as he recommended books to his customers in Bookforum, the 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’d 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 romantic 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 young daughters. Their store represents an alternative approach to bookselling that balances excitement over the latest book, healthy shelf space for out of print titles, and a deep commitment to representing marginalized voices.
With over 70,000 titles, including scholarly and general interest, Labyrinth was born on 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 so they sold their New York store to a third partner and opened Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey.
“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.
Dorothea von Moltke- Photo by Dale Cotton
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 60s, 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 evaporate. 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.
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 9 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’ve 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 that are part of us but hidden, repressed, underdeveloped, or unknown. To my mind, the encounter with customers is exciting when it is on some level also mutually unsettling.
Cliff Simms, Courtesy of Labyrinth Books
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 a 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.
However, it is also true that then Columbia Provost Jonathan Cole had a vision for the role our bookstore could play in a place like New York's Upper West Side around Columbia University, and we owe a great deal to his own commitment as well as that of many Columbia professors.
WRR: Was expansion a part of the original vision?
von Moltke: Certainly not. And as you can see from the fact that we sold the New York store in order to open the one in Princeton, 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, again, in this case of several members of the University administration believing that a local, independent bookstore with a focus on both academic and general interest books have 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 12 years ago. It's a tribute to the leadership of the University and its president, Shirley Tilghman, in particular.
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 the 11 years 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 curator of knowledge, with an emphasis on the representation of marginalized and underrepresented 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 means being 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.
Photo by Dale Cotten
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 today’s market’s 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 an auction to wholesalers (or are sent to a pulper). This is where a book can get another lease on life.
We have been buying hurts and remainders in this way since before we opened our first store. We were both motivated to bring books back into the public eye that should not have disappeared from the marketplace so quickly, as well as finding a way to try to compete for discounts with chain stores and the internet. A book that we buy wholesale at an auction is one 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’ve 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. You could come up hard against all that you don’t know – hopefully both.
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…To be continued…
In the Part Two of our interview, Wild River Review continues our discussion with Dorothea von Moltke and Cliff Simms about reading and technology, the presidential election, and how books can fuel empowerment and social change.