Independent bookselling is a labyrinthine project

With its Clinique makeup counter and home furnishing section, Yale’s Barnes & Noble — the largest bookstore between New York City and Boston — often looks more like a department store than a neighborhood bookstore. Offering everything from shower caddies to Shakespeare, it’s hard to imagine why students would need to shop anywhere else.

Facing the behemoth of the Yale Bookstore, independent booksellers have to work hard to stand out. Labyrinth Books, which recently opened in the former location of Book Haven, enters the market with the distinct advantage of a pre-established audience for course books, but it will still have to create its own niche among the surrounding bookstores — a project that requires cheap books, unique offerings and professors sympathetic to the independent cause.

Labyrinth took over the lease from Book Haven last spring when its owners were approached by Book Haven owner Susan Schwab, who was “ready to move on to other things” after 27 years in business, said Labyrinth owner Dorothea Von Moltke ’90. Labyrinth already has one location near Columbia University in New York, so Von Moltke thought it was particularly suited to replace a bookstore that had acted as an unofficial second option to the Yale Bookstore.

“We serve a very similar community in New York,” Von Moltke said. “A first-class university should have a very serious, hand-picked store, so we thought this was a perfect opportunity.”

Labyrinth officially opened its doors for business Aug. 22, but long before its opening, it had already begun contacting professors considering where to order their books for the current semester. Many professors who previously opted to order their books with Book Haven have chosen to continue to order with its replacement, and Labyrinth will be stocking 300 course lists this semester. For a significant part of the faculty, ordering their books with Book Haven (and now Labyrinth) honors their commitment to independent bookstores.

Anthropology professor David Watts said his subject makes it especially important that he order his books through an independent bookstore.

“Given that the course for which I’ve ordered books is something called ‘Primate Conservation,’ and one of the big overriding issues for conservation as I see it is the influence that large corporations have over economic decisions, I think it would be inappropriate of me to not place my book order with an independent bookstore,” he said.

While Labyrinth provides the same independent bookstore option to Yale professors as Book Haven, the student experience of its course book service will be significantly changed from the experience at Book Haven. Unlike at Book Haven and the Yale Bookstore, most of Labyrinth’s course books will be housed in closed stacks. Students will not browse through books arranged by subject and course; they will bring their course lists or the name of their course and professor to a Labyrinth employee who will retrieve the books for them. Experience at the Columbia store has taught Von Moltke that this is a more efficient way of distributing course books that prevents students from missing or buying the wrong books.

“We have fewer lost lambs that way,” she said.

Von Moltke said she hopes that Labyrinth will be a store for “lifelong students and engaged readers.” Labyrinth will attempt to fulfill this mission by stocking a wide variety of scholarly and other literature for a longer time than they would be around in chain bookstores, sometimes even bringing books back to the shelves.

“I hope that we’ll be a place that people will come to really get an overview of their field and in order to find things they didn’t even know they wanted,” she said.

Von Moltke stressed that Labyrinth is not a “bibliophile venture” that will stock expensive rare books. The store will often stock publishers’ returns and other discounted titles so students and young faculty can begin to build libraries. Labyrinth will also host events such as readings, book signings and public discussions. Von Moltke would like the New Haven Labyrinth to duplicate the activity of the Columbia location, which recently hosted a film series.

In its need to distinguish itself from the Yale Bookstore, Labyrinth has a similar challenge to the other two bookstores near campus.

Book Trader Cafe, on the corner of Chapel and York streets, is a used book store that has a lot of things you can’t find anywhere else, owner David Duda said. Book Trader routinely buys hundreds of books a week, tens of thousands this summer.

“About 90 percent of the books we stock are books people sell over the counter to us,” he said. “We have no idea what’s coming each day.”

Book Trader also buys thousands of course books from students and faculty at the end of each semester.

Atticus Bookstore Cafe manager Ricardo Enriquez said that shoppers at Atticus will find mainstream books like “The Da Vinci Code” and the Harry Potter series next to new books like “Whores on the Heel” by punk author Colleen Curran. Atticus also prides itself on its customer service, he said.

“Someone can come and say ‘I’m looking for a book, it has love in the title,’ and we can find it for them,” Enriquez said.

In the coming months, Labyrinth will be looking to establish its place among the bookstores of New Haven. Von Moltke finds this challenge especially welcome, as the opening of the store is a return to the place she spent her undergraduate years.

“It’s so exciting to come back,” she said. “The welcome that we’ve had from faculty and students and people in the community that I’ve approached has been so warm and so generous that we are really excited to be here.”

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