Labyrinth Books owner Dorothea von Moltke answers questions about how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected her business.
A month ago, anyone could walk into Labyrinth Books and peruse its two floors of shelves teeming with scholarly works and tables stacked with new releases. People could be seen sitting in the store’s aisles or armchairs, skimming through the pages of newfound books. Labyrinth Books opened in 2007 as Princeton’s independent scholarly and community bookstore and since then has become an intellectual hub connecting the university and the town’s community. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the bookstore’s revenues are down 75% and the Labyrinth team has had to transform the way their business functions, adopting curbside pickup and delivery with free shipping in New Jersey. In an effort to continue the author events program virtually, Labyrinth is using live-streaming, podcasts, and Zoom meetings. It is unclear how the current crisis will change the landscape of local business in Princeton, but Dorothea von Moltke is hopeful that the community will get through this together. The store’s new phone hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 609.497.1600 #1.
How have Labyrinth’s sales and employees been affected?
Our sales plummeted when we closed our doors. We then reorganized internally — as so many other brick and mortar businesses have — in order still to be able to take phone and online orders while working with a very minimal crew, allowing us to assign workstations and practice social distancing to protect staff that is still working. The outpouring of support from the community has been moving and substantial and while we worried at first that that would dissipate, it hasn’t. Our online sales have doubled and we are busy on the phones during all our phone hours. As difficult as the crisis is, it seems that it is also producing real solidarities with local businesses, Labyrinth included. Our revenues are down 75%, so this work doesn’t cover our operational costs. But every order helps and gives us purpose.
We had to temporarily lay off all of our staff, which was wrenching. A few are now working part-time hours, both in the store as mentioned and also from home, and are collecting unemployment to make up for the rest of their wages. We are paying their full healthcare benefit pay-ins until we get back to normal. Each and every one of them has been understanding, generous, and supportive to a degree that is hard to convey. Everyone thankfully seems to be healthy right now.
How has the way Labyrinth functions changed?
Our author events program is one of the main ways of trying to create conversation around books. As all events needed to be canceled, we have been trying to learn quickly how to bring some of this content to our community through live-streaming and podcasts. We’ve always sought out partnerships and collaborations in connection with our events and are heartened that this continues to be possible. In fact, many of our partners from regular, instore events — from the Public Library to McCarter to the Garden Theater, Princeton’s Office of Religious Life, Princeton’s Concert Series, and more — have also reached out to us with ideas for looping Labyrinth in even as we have shared our content with them. For all of this, we are enormously grateful. In that sense, we are trying to stay true to ourselves while moving to new mediums.
How has your partnership with Princeton University been affected?
We know ourselves to be lucky in the close relationship we have with the University. As they are also our landlord, we are in conversations with them about support. None of this has been decided, but we are hopeful. A central aspect of this partnership is our work to supply coursebooks to students. With so many unknowns about the shape of the fall semester, we are in an ongoing conversation about how best to prepare for various scenarios. In that sense, in this relationship, too, there is continuity in the partnership even as we meet up on Zoom to try to imagine the rest of the year together and come up with ideas and plans.
How does the impact compare to other crises such as Hurricane Sandy and the 2009 recession?
There really is no comparison in my mind. There is currently a much more fundamental collapse in demand as everyone needs to stay home and businesses are shuttered in order to protect both the public and our own workers. Whereas the other crises were either localized in space, like Sandy, or limited in scope, this one seems open-ended and universal, and much more likely to fundamentally reshape important aspects of society and the economy. This crisis seems likely to accelerate forces that were already at work, including the consolidation of the economy in ever fewer large corporations.
Do the new NJEDA initiatives to support businesses and Congress’ Coronavirus Stimulus Deal help? Do you think there are other things that could be done to help your business?
While there is real forward momentum in the implementation of the CARE act, this is another area with at least as many open questions as answers. The piece of the legislation that is most directly important to us is the Payroll Protection Plan, which is a very low-interest loan that can be forgiven if the money is used in large part to bring staff back onto the payroll, which is exactly the right kind of thing to help small businesses. The devil is, however, in the details. For example, it seems that the money needs to be spent within 8 weeks of receiving the loan. But this assumes that we are open and back to normal in two months, or else we will then have to furlough staff again, which we want to avoid at all cost. Moreover, most lending banks so far have no guidance about how to administer the loans, which is creating confusion, delay, and distress.
A piece of legislation that could provide quick (and efficiently administrated) relief would be to provide some federal funds to business interruption insurance, which many small businesses carry but which does not provide protection for this unprecedented crisis, and to support the insurance companies so they in turn can cover this event for small businesses. So far, there has not been sufficient political will to require the insurance industry to step up in any way.
What do you think the long-term effects on Labyrinth are?
Would that I had that crystal ball. I have to trust and believe that we will come through this crisis and resume all aspects of the work we love with all our colleagues. My assumption, however, is that we will open our doors to a changed world. We feel that there are two possible extremes. Either, we will come together as a community and realize the value that small businesses have in creating and sustaining the life of a community, or there will be a further erosion of the sustainability of local businesses. Our current experience makes us hopeful that the former could be true and that the values to which people return in a time of crisis can continue to inform their practices.
What gives you hope?
Our relationships both within the store and within the community are the basis of most all our hopes. The actions of empathy, generosity, and solidarity, which are also on full display right now everywhere alongside the fear and withdrawals, are profound to witness and are, I believe, the basis of our individual and collective strength. Also all those blossoms — the sudden exuberance of spring gives me hope.