The People Behind the Books
Dorothea von Moltke and Cliff Simms at home in Princeton.
Labyrinth’s Founding Family
By Wendy Greenberg | Photography by Andrew Wilkinson
“Lo the Poor Bookseller,” H. L. Mencken wrote in a 1930 essay: “The marvel is, indeed that [the bookseller] ever survives at all. It is as if a haberdasher, in addition to meeting all the hazards of the current fashion, had to keep in stock a specimen of every kind of shirt, collar, sock, necktie, and undershirt in favor since 1750.”
The picture of the underappreciated bookseller was brushed up when Jeff Deutsch wrote in the introduction to his 2022 book, In Praise of Good Bookstores: “The good bookstore’s collection comprises books that might have been published a month ago, a year ago, a half century ago, a couple of millennia ago. The attuned bookseller must provide a selection of books of all vintages.”
To be successful, he continued, bookselling “demands a firm grasp not just of the literature of the ages but also of the literature of one’s lifetime and of the thousands of new publications announced in the publishers’ catalogs that arrive seasonally, and by the dozens. Only a minute fraction of the books one considers will make the shelves. Discernment is the primary quality of a good bookseller; filtration, selection, assemblage, and enthusiasm (for) their work.”
Deutsch, the director at the renowned Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, offers this guideline: “Good bookstores reflect their communities; exceptional bookstores both reflect and create their communities.”
The owners of Princeton’s Labyrinth Books — brothers Cliff and Peter Simms and Dorothea von Moltke, who is married to Cliff — know all too well the intricacies and tribulations of the book business. But they seem to have met the threshold for both reflecting their community, and creating one.
At a Princeton Public Library event with Deutsch a few years ago, Cliff Simms recounted that when he first walked into Seminary in Chicago, he realized that it was the model for the bookstore he wanted and recounted, “It has been that receding image that I have been chasing variously for 30 years.”
Peter, left, and Cliff Simms at Great Jones Books.
The “Secret Sauce”
How Labyrinth Books realizes that model is referred to by Cliff as the “secret sauce.” Housed in a nondescript low brick building with obscure signage off Route 27 in Pennington — between a golf center and a Burger King — is Great Jones Books, which buys overstocks at steep discounts from publishers. It is also owned by the partners.
Inside Great Jones are what seem to be endless shelves of books, books on tables, books in cartons — a browser’s delight without the comfort of a retail store. Great Jones purchases more than a million books a year and reserves the best for Labyrinth while selling to stores all over the world. It is the source of the sizable discounted inventory in the Labyrinth store (about 70 percent), while maintaining a scholarly and diverse subject selection. “It’s in this sense that Great Jones is the ‘secret sauce’ that is a crucial part, that makes Labyrinth what it is,” says Peter, who runs Great Jones with Cliff and who also manages the financial and business operations of both Labyrinth and Great Jones.
In the early 1990s, before the three opened an early version of Labyrinth Books on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, they were looking at a space on the corner of Great Jones Street in a second floor, 6,000-square-foot loft. “We were enchanted with it in part because we were sure it is the space where the (Don) DeLillo novel called Great Jones Street takes place — a great book about the impasses of rock and roll and celebrity culture,” explains Cliff. “We didn’t take the space, but kept the name to memorialize the moment.”
Great Jones Books in Pennington.
Without Great Jones, says Peter, “it would be financially impossible to sustain the depth and diversity of the store’s collection or to realize our desire to be both a bookstore for an exceptionally literate and curious town-community and a scholarly bookstore for a wonderful University.”
“We skim the cream,” continues Peter. “We’ve become our own supply line; we can extend the life of the books. You can find what you can’t find elsewhere.” Chain stores don’t keep books out for very long, he notes.
Great Jones’ books are from varied sources. Last year, for example, Great Jones bought a classics library of 1,500 books from the widow of a professor they had known in New York. Cliff had mentioned he was interested 20 years ago, and the book owner’s survivor remembered him.
The Early Years
The Simms siblings grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then in Oceanside, Long Island. In his youth, Cliff had been a good soccer player (not a great reader, he says) and went to Columbia University where he played soccer. He was soon captivated by his academic mentors. He majored in 17th-century English literature and philosophy, and worked part-time in bookstores. In fact, after graduation, he felt that bookstores were a good continuing education.
Dorothea was a graduate student at Columbia majoring in German literature in 1992 when she “spotted” Cliff, who at the time was co-owner of a bookstore across from Columbia, as she got her coursebooks. Intrigued by him, and his discussions of books with his customers, she engaged in a conversation herself and they soon began taking walks together.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., where her father was a professor of history, Dorothea grew up in Hamburg and Bonn, Germany. Her grandparents had been in the resistance in Germany during the World War II years. She moved to Vermont for her last year of high school. After spending time in France and Italy, she graduated from Yale, moved to East Berlin when the wall came down, and worked for a roundtable against xenophobia before starting graduate school.
Soon, the siblings and Dorothea rented a warehouse in Yonkers, N.Y., initially to move out the boxes of books that filled Cliff’s apartment so Dorothea could move in, and with the thought of starting a book remainder business. Peter had worked in real estate in New York and was between careers when Cliff was managing the bookstore at Columbia University. Peter came in to run Great Jones, starting with 20,000 books, many Yale University Press returns.
The Columbia Years
“Before we opened our first bookstore, we understood why the kinds of bookstores that we admired were disappearing,” says Dorothea. “We loved stores that keep extensive collections both of backlist and newly published titles, and where you could browse through extensive subject areas and find what was important to the past and present of those fields.”
In the late 1990s, when Columbia University wanted to open its own bookstore they came to Cliff, then age 39, who had run a bookstore with a former partner. As the New York Times reported before the 1997 opening, the new store would buck a trend: there would be no cappuccinos or scones, but there would be at least 50,000 academic and scholarly titles, sorted into about 100 categories.
A Columbia University news release at the time predicted that the Columbia-located Labyrinth Books would be “the largest and most comprehensive scholarly bookstore in New York City. Indeed, with 6,500-square-feet of space and a 100,000-volume, $1.5-million inventory that includes 70,000 titles, the store will be larger than the famous Seminary Co-op Bookstore, the University of Chicago fixture that was the model for Labyrinth.”
Then in around 2006, Princeton University came calling. The community missed the closed Micawber Books, which had been named for a Dickens character and run by Logan Fox (son of Random House editor Joseph Fox, whose name is used in the film about bookstores, You’ve Got Mail). The landscape was changing with the University Store looking to get out of the coursebook business. Aware of Labyrinth’s reputation in Manhattan as a scholarly and community bookstore, Princeton approached the Labyrinth owners and invited them to open on Nassau Street.
Labyrinth Books in downtown Princeton.
The Princeton Years
Now long settled in the Princeton community, Cliff and Peter have short commutes to the Pennington warehouse. Dorothea can bike to the store from a nearby tree-obscured house where she and Cliff raised their two daughters, Thalia and Nora, who went to Princeton schools and grew up stopping by the bookstore. Peter, his wife Jennifer, and daughter Sophia live in Hopewell between the store and the warehouse.
“Moving to Princeton and having only one bookstore, and moving the warehouse to Pennington, consolidated our lives,” says Dorothea.
A mobile hanging from a tree in the backyard of Cliff and Dorothea’s house echoes the yellow spoons that have become iconic at Labyrinth, which were made by Dorothea’s mother’s partner. Inside, the bookshelves are plentiful as one might have guessed. The fiction is in the bedroom. The living room has philosophy, critical theory, psychoanalysis, and religion. Art books are in the hallway. Poetry is in the dining room. Dorothea’s books in other languages are in her study, and Cliff’s study holds the history books. Art fills the walls.
Naming “favorite books” is not for Cliff and Dorothea. “Both of us look for books that disrupt us, make us feel differently than before,” says Cliff.
Today, almost two decades after Labyrinth opened, it is still both a community and scholarly bookstore, blending new books across all genres and disciplines, used and rare books, kids’ books, remaindered and bargain books, as well as coursebooks for Princeton University classes.
“I love the new release tables in the store,” says Dorothea. “The books talk to you and to each other.”
“Books are aspirational,” said Cliff.
“If you buy a lot of books you don’t usually get to buy at lower prices, you can aspire to more.”
The customer experience is important, and it starts with the discount tables outside the store, which Dorothea jokingly calls “a gateway drug” to the books inside.
Peter Simms says that the customer experience for many relies on a “well-organized website.” And all three agree that having good staff is essential. “We have been fortunate to have a core group of people. They make everything possible,” says Peter.
Agrees Dorothea, “You can’t have a good bookstore without good booksellers, and from its inception, Labyrinth has been incredibly fortunate in its knowledgeable and dedicated staff, who have helped shape the store and continue to do just that every day. Basically, at Labyrinth, everyone is a bookseller. At Great Jones we are equally dependent on a core group of knowledgeable, hard working, and devoted colleagues, who routinely deal with a variety of complex issues,” including the sale and shipment of books to retail stores domestically and abroad, and navigating an often complex landscape of regulations and customer requirements.
For several years now, the Princeton Public Library and Labyrinth have presented a series of joint events — Labyrinth and the Library Live, or LLL. It is events such as these and interactions in the community that have helped Labyrinth create its own community. Some are held at the store, some at the library, and Dorothea considers her programming counterparts at the library, Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, the Princeton University Humanities Council, and others, “cross-institutional colleagues.”
The Labyrinth author events are characterized by pairing an author with a fellow writer in the field — a like-minded intellectual or an interesting discussant. “If there is one guiding principle for how we approach our events programming and, more generally, our work with and in the communities to which we belong, that principle is collaboration,” says Dorothea. “We have come to know and deeply value so many both on campus and in town by partnering with them when planning events.”
When putting together a season of events, says Dorothea, “we are more guided by the issues that we believe we need to grapple with collectively as well as by the wish to celebrate writers who can move us and help us to see the world differently.” Thus, there was a special event this fall on banned books, one last year on abortion rights, and even a discussion on civic storytelling.
The Simms brothers and Dorothea see Labyrinth as having a role to play in the community. “We have come to bookselling to connect with events that are shaping the future of the moment,” says Cliff. “I always thought cultural institutions are social institutions.”
The bookstore is known for its community activism. “We regularly open our space to and support groups doing the hard work of helping where help is urgently needed, be this HomeFront, Housing Initiatives of Princeton, the ACLU of NJ, or Planned Parenthood, to name a few. The project of building libraries inside prisons is one we have longed cared about in particular,” says Dorothea. “While we were able, with the help of the prison education program NJ-STEP, to build such a one at Rahway, this work stalled out during the pandemic and we are currently looking for ways to revive it.”
A new collaboration with Princeton High School this fall is focusing on a book on food insecurity. One planned for next spring about mass incarceration in the U.S. will be another case in point.
“We’ve gotten to know and share in the community concerns,” says Dorothea.
Housing equity is an important issue in Princeton, she says, and directly affects local businesses as Princeton is not affordable for the vast number of the town’s employees. She and neighboring businesses are also concerned about the parking and traffic flow in the downtown area.
Dorothea serves as vice chair of the Board of Princeton University Concerts; is a member of the Princeton University Art Museum’s Community Leadership Council; a member of the McCarter/Princeton Conversation Council; the Princeton University Public Lecture Nominating Committee; and the Economic Development Committee of Experience Princeton. Both she and Cliff are members of New Jersey’s Main Street Alliance.
Cliff, Peter, and Dorothea have never wavered from their original bookstore model. Before Labyrinth opened in Princeton in 2007, a University news release portended the bookstore’s role today, quoting Cliff: “We believe we can create a store that will be a real civic space in which knowledge in all fields can be celebrated and discussed. We also take very seriously our obligation to serve the needs of students and faculty in providing course books in reliable, efficient, and cost-effective ways through the availability of used, as well as new books.”
He noted, in a 2017 interview with Princeton University, that the “combination of a store providing coursebooks, working to be a premier academic bookstore, and integrating itself into the broader cultural and civic fabric of a town and campus has in fact become rare.”
As Cliff has said, good bookstores “share a reverence for books, and they know and believe in what books can do.”
As its owners have shown, so does Labyrinth Books.
Labyrinth Books is open from 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. daily. 609.497.1600; labyrinthbooks.com.