Just walk in Micawber Books, now as it phases out its inventory in preparation to close its doors in March, and you will undoubtedly bear witness to a sad scene, not quite of mourning but of definite melancholy, downtrodden emotion. Yes, of course, the friendly staff is still smiling; Bobbie Fishman, a long-time employee, interestedly asks what I need help finding, but there is a somber air looming over the store: the shelves in the used-book section have been disassembled and piled in orderly disarray, the stacks in the new-books section increasingly reveal empty wood as customers continue to remove the books and buy them at heavily discounted prices. In the alphabetized Penguin Classics section and fiction shelves, entire letters of the alphabet have disappeared, and the D’s wane dangerously close to extinction.
“It’s not exactly like a death in the family, but something close to that,” Micawber’s used-book specialist Robert Atwood said of the shop’s decision to close. His Adam’s apple bops. He’s a bit choked up.
Micawber announced on December 4, 2006 that it would close its doors, and in a deal with Princeton University, Labyrinth Books will take on Micawber’s role in town and that of the text book division for the U-Store, which will phase out its book selling and open up a satellite apparel shop on Nassau Street. Labyrinth, which also has stores near Columbia and Yale, will open by November.
I meet founder and co-owner Logan Fox on a Tuesday afternoon in Small World to find out the scoop behind Micawber’s closing, and though he may hope for a brief hiatus from the deep marinating emotion in his shop where people constantly express their sadness about the close, he will not find a respite here. Everyone in the café either smiles at him in recognition or shakes his hand firmly in a line of thank yous and well-wishing. I have never seen someone hugged so many times while in line to get a simple coffee. At 53, Fox is youthful with flowing chestnut hair and ruddy, boyish cheeks; he smiles and spends the necessary time to listen to each friend; he knows their names, their personal stories, their tastes in literature. We make our way into a corner table I have saved with a plaid blazer and scarf, and Fox seems surprised. “I’ve never actually had the opportunity to sit here,” he says, alluding to the strenuous schedule of retail.
Now at the end of Micawber’s 26-year run, Fox can analyze, coffee in hand, his business with greater perspicacity. Admittedly, the odds seemed to be against Micawber from the get-go, according to Fox, who started the business on a bit of a whim.
After marrying his wife, Ellie Wyeth, in 1981, he was looking to get out of New York City, where he had been for 12 years. It seems he landed on Princeton by sheer fate.
“I went down to Philadelphia for a job interview at a rare book room,” he said. “There was no opening, but the owner had just been to Princeton and noticed the Princeton Book Mart had just closed.”
With an opening in the market, Fox thought he would explore his options.
“We came out. I had no interest in opening a store at all,” Fox explained. “But because we had a friend in realty out here, we came out to look at the area at least as a possible place to live. And we drove out on this creepy, I think it was early April, day. There was a blizzard, some eighteen inches of snow in a day in a half. And we managed to make it out, and there was no one, the streets were absolutely empty.”
Fox’s first encounter with his property proved inauspicious and unwelcoming with the deserted streets, the inclement weather. Perhaps the struggles in the mere act of getting to the building can serve as metaphor for the difficulties of independent retail shops in Princeton face; they must have the stick-to-itiveness to adapt to and manage the various obstacles thrown their way.
The signs pointed Fox toward the property at 108 Nassau St. as he trampled through the freakish Princeton weather.
“We met with this friend’s mother, who had seen an ad in The Town Topics a week before,” he explained. “We just knocked on the door, and there was the landlady in housecoat and slippers, who let us in to see 108 Nassau, and two weeks later we signed the lease with no idea what we were doing, absolutely no clue about the area, about the demographics, about how to run a book shop. If I had realized how little I knew and what a risk I was taking, I would never have done it.”
But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Fox embarked upon a future with a business that he knew to be a risky enterprise. Despite the uncertainty of the business, Fox, at his father’s urging, attached a humorous association in his choice of name for the shop: Mr. Micawber of David Copperfield who is always in debt.
“Mr. Micawber is always penniless, always trying to elude his creditors,” Fox explained. “In his famous line, well he has a couple, he says, ‘Something good will turn up here’ to his wife who’s always on the verge of hysteria because they can’t feed the kids, can’t pay the rent. He was finally shipped off to Australia because of a failure to pay his debts. So with my father it was kind of an inside joke.”
As I make my way through the thinning book shelves, I see a thin layer of dust that reverently outlines the immaculate area where books once stood. In the dismantled used-book section of Micawber, Atwood, peering up from his glasses, tells me he is especially fond of the tight, almost familial, bonds that have formed among the Micawber staff.
“Working here is about working like a family,” he said. “We all know each other’s home life. The closing has been like a separation.”
There is a sense of estrangement one feels with Micawber’s breakup, an unsalvageable home, a permanent closing down. Emotion has increased for Atwood as he has taken measures to physically prepare the store for closing.
“We spent this past week taking the store apart. I don’t want to use words like ‘depressing,’” he said. “It’s a strange feeling. Micawber has been such a fixture in town.” Atwood sucks up his emotion and continues dutiful analysis, fighting off the glassy state of his eyes. He explains how the travelogues and the literary criticism are being moved from the used section to the new. He gazes toward the roped-in area of Micawber’s rare books section, made up mostly of first editions and signed copies, the contents of which will soon be bought by many private collectors. Of the books that are left, he shows me, for example, a $5,000 1633 Latin book about various types of flora and carefully takes down from the shelf a $200 first edition of Henry James’s The Wings of The Dove.
Rare or commonplace, all books are valuable to Fox, who grew up surrounded by literature. To hear him speak of opening up a bookshop by chance seems somewhat absurd, for his entire upbringing and habits point to Micawber as his destiny.
In Small World, through sips of his coffee, he explains how he grew of in a family of publishers; among other relatives in the business, one of his grandfathers was president of Harper & Rowe for 30 years where his father-in-law also worked, and his father was an editor at Random House for 35 years.
From his toddler days in New York City, to his youth and adolescence in Westchester County, his life was consumed by volumes of all sorts.
“I remember my childhood, and perhaps I exaggerated in my old age,” he said, “but I remember it was filled with books, whether it be my house, my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s house, it was always something to fall back on an a rainy day, or an early evening.”
Fox explained that as a child he most enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Toolbooth, Robert Louis Stevenson books, On the Road, and Paul Bowles titles.
Literature became Fox’s greatest teacher and form of entertainment during the time he took off between high school and college.
“After high school I took off five years before going back to college and worked at a variety of things including cooking jobs, a lot of chef jobs,” he said. “That was the time I really dedicated to trying to read what I thought was the canon, my made up cannon. Because I was lucky enough to have a father in publishing, he would send me everything by Dostoevsky, or everything by Tolstoy. And I had these concentrated spans where I’d read nothing but 12 books by Dostoevsky, 15 by another…This is the best education one can get. I was also working as a breakfast chef at that time, so I’d be up at 5 in the morning, walk to work, be done by two, come home and read for four hours before my roommates returned home.”
Fox had his first encounter with a job at a bookshop when starting to work at The Strand bookstore in New York about a year and a half before resuming his studies at NYU.
Though Fox did venture publishing, it seems he did necessarily feel as comfortable in that line of work.
“I had a short stint at Princeton University Press, but found out what I thought to be true as I went, which was I did not want to compete with all of those legacies. I am much more comfortable on the floor of my own shop.”
The comfort Fox felt on at Micawber did not come without loss; in order to begin his business, he first had to part with what he most cherished.
“A large portion of our original inventory consisted of the books I had collected over the years, when I was a teenager or in my twenties when working at The Strand,” Fox said. “So it enabled us to get it up and running, but it was one of the most incredibly painful experiences I’ve ever gone through…We had an opening party, and I think I’m right in remembering that Joyce Carol Oates bought three or four of my Nabokov titles. I remember almost reaching back and saying, ‘I’m sorry, no, I need those back.’”
Now that the store is closing, all of the books have become part of Fox’s life those of his employees.
Fishman, as she organizes the discounted books, describes how when someone now searches for a certain book, more and more often the last copy in the store, she wants to say, “You can’t have it unless you really love it.” There is an attachment to the literature in the philosophy of Micawber, a desire in its ethos to spread this deep, heart-pounding love of literature, this contagious energy and enthusiasm for books.
In the children’s section bean bag chairs lie in comfy literary nooks, and kids still find their niches on wooden stools or a wooden table on which Fox’s wife, Ellie Wyeth, has painted lizards, snakes, cardinals, blue jays, bees, dragonflies, and lady bugs.
In a vague and shadowy corner among the disassembled stacks, where shimmied saw dust trickles off the rounded corners of shelves, there still hangs a P. Howden painting representing Dickens’s Mr. Micawber, donning his ascot asserted firmly to his throat, removing his top hat, peering through his monocle in overly optimistic gestures given his impending state of exile.
By the register, there are turnstiles of funky reading glasses that half-block cartoons from The New Yorker taped to the light-colored wood. A mélange of books stills adorns the center aisle of the store surround by “30% OFF” discount signs, and the purple walls to all the customers seem somehow royal, yet somehow like home.
As Micawber ends its run, it has established itself as part of the current old guard of Princeton independent shops, though this current reality did not always seem an attainable reality.
“When we came, it would have seemed impossible that we would become the old guys on the block,” Fox said. “There were so many well-established, long-time mom and pop businesses on Nassau, and I felt very much like the new kid on the block.”
Though amazed at establishing himself in Princeton, Fox turns somewhat sour when he thinks of the chains that have been increasingly invading the downtown since the early 90s. His sweet expression curdles a bit when I broach the topic.
“You know how I feel!” he says spiritedly. He smiles a bit in jest, but there is a gravity to his tone. He’s fighting the good fight, the noble battle for the small business, the mom and pop shop, the retail manifestation of a Dickensian bildung character.
“I think the turning moment was when the University sold Palmer Square…that’s when things truly began to change in town,” he said, “because without local management, the easiest thing you had to do was to find chains to occupy the spaces on Palmer Square. And it’s hard for us to remember that Palmer Square was all mom and pops back then. That’s where the Princeton Book Mart was, that’s where the record store was…then eventually …more and more chains began to come in which escalated rents.”
In Small World, Fox is a bit heated during his analysis of the downtown business scene, but back in Micawber, the atmosphere is peaceful in the decline, an anaesthetized patient awaiting its final procedure.
The rotund, red office at the back of the store remains open so that there are no secrets in the store, no one hides. There is a chip in the paint on the ramp to the children’s section, and one figures it would have already been painted had Micawber not been closing anyway. The blue couch in the back by the fiction has two fresh depressions that a couple left when recently browsing the selection. Two orange pillows recline on the couch in inviting coziness.
The love for literature that Fox brought to his interaction with people stood as a testament to the close, personalized communication and intimacy that stores like Micawber facilitate. With chains, Fox sees a definite change in Princeton.
“It’s disappointing in the way it’s changed the character of the town,” he says. “I used to be able go in any store on Nassau Street and be called by my first name, and people would usually know why I was there, do you want to see so-and-so, or here’s your usual paper, and now you walk around, and there are very few people who recognize you.” This indictment of the lack of personalized attention in chains stores is something Fox has fought against; he exemplifies with impressive ease the various coffee-drinkers in our vicinity, feels in his town with his customers even beyond the store.
Despite this intimate attention given to customers, Micawber faced a financial crisis in the early 90s, and in Dickensian fashion found an angelic benefactor: Margaret Griffin saved the sinking ship in 1994 and became co-owner with Fox to lead the store through to its expansion in 1998 and on until the present. Speaking of this trying financial time, Fox pointed to the growth of big chains as contributing to his waning business.
“I think the chain that really made an impact was Encore [Books] down at the Princeton Shopping Center,” he said. “They cut into our business by 20-25% those first couple of years. And we had a terrible financial crisis in the early 90s as the result of the chains proliferating. But this slowly began to level off, and I think people began to come back to the downtown area, the romance of the free parking began to wear off, because the merchandise was always the same, and the lack of personal connection in the stores, I think, began to effect people.”
But Micawber seemed partly to inoculate itself against the chain competitors, as latter big-business additions to the book market had less impact on Micawber’s sales.
“What I noticed was that the bigger chains that came in later might have slowed our growth, or stunted it, but they didn’t make us go into negative numbers, go backwards the way that Encore had,” he said.
With the dot com boom in the late 90s, though, Micawber took another hit, one that has stayed on to do lingering and ambiguous damage.
“I feel the same way about Amazon,” he said. “There’s no way I can quantify what they’re doing to our business. 10%, 20%, 30%, nothing at all. I have no idea”
He does support what on-line venues may do in making independent books and sellers available to the public.
“I have mixed feelings about not necessarily Amazon, but about the kind of on-line business we’re becoming more and more dependant upon,” Fox said. “In one way, it’s a real asset, for small presses, small authors, small publisher’s, wonderful forgotten titles that have gone out of print. It is the forgotten items, the smaller items that are benefiting the most, not the best-sellers, not the top five or ten products in any one industry.”
Indeed, the on-line business of automatic suggestions can lead to some for the obscure titles otherwise lost to the whims of history.
“Because of the recommendation process—if you like this, you like that—you’re back to a novel from the 1890s that’s been out of print for a few years,” he said. “A publisher needs it, plugs it, it’s issued again in paperback, and a whole new generation discovers it. It’s wonderful stuff.”
Fox, though, still craves the tangible over the digital, the true proof of quality over the technological guarantee. He cannot bear to pass on the intimacy, the leafing through of books, the casual browsing that is lost in eye-to-monitor, hand-to-mouse contact.
“I don’t like what it’s done to brick-and-mortar stores, I won’t even say independent stores,” Fox said. “I wonder why it was that sometimes other people don’t miss tactile influence when shopping for anything, whether it be DVDs, or CDs, books. I’m someone who depends on having everything in front of me, to, you know, flip it over, read the flap. Buying on-line is very mysterious to me. As we get more and more used to it, I think it’s going to impact our brick-and-mortars and therefore our downtowns.”
As Princeton pulls in its larger chains, such as J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Ralph Lauren in the clothing industry, for example, the small, local boutiques lie pray to a sort of corporate vampirism that sucks up the business market.
In the store as Atwood move critcism onto a cart in the used section and Fishman assists customers, I gaze at the framed announcements of store readings and signings that line the purple walls—advertising poets and writers, critics and professors, from the local bookish sort to Toni Morrison. A tall man—a giraffe of the book browsing species—looks down on Fishman, shorter in stature, as she neatly arranges the dwindling supply of books. “Can I help you reach anything,” she calls, and they both share a chuckle. This is the sort of personal attention, warmth Fox has tried to attain in his store.
“We’ve had the most reliable, wonderful set of employees ever over the years, and especially over the last ten,” he said. “We’ve been absolutely, incredibly lucky to have all of them.”
In addition to the close addition to customers from Micawber employees, the local color that independent shops bring can be best exemplified in Fox’s own motivation to ameliorate his store’s situation in the quotidian and the long term.
“I wish that I could have applied the same energy and same drive every single day. It’s impossible,” Fox said about goals he had for his store. “Initially and all the way through, I tried to live by a policy or the idea that I would try to do one good thing for the store every day, whether that meant helping a long-time customer, bringing in a new line of books, in advertisements, it didn’t matter. But at the end of the day on my ride home, I could always say to myself I did do one good thing to benefit the store.”
In waging war against the bigger chains and wining a place for Micawber in the Princeton book market, Fox eventually sensed a bit of a loss of the close-knit community they had created; his store had become too big after its expansion.
“One of the things that displeased me, and that I wish that hadn’t happened, when we made the transition from 110 [Nassau St.] to 114 [Nassau St.] in 1998, it stunned me…that we the staff began to be treated in a very different way,” he said. “There was an intimacy, and a respect, and a cordiality in the old store due to its size. I mean, it was like a club. When we got bigger, we felt confronted, almost assaulted at various moments, the whole tone of the enterprise changed. And the staff felt it, I felt it; it became a much more difficult enterprise, a much less fun enterprise.”
With this change in demeanor and store decorum came the disappointing appearance of theft, which Fox describes euphemistically as “shrinkage.”
“We all felt rather abused,” he said, “that we made this effort to make what we thought was this terrific store, and suddenly felt under the gun, that we had to become more suspicious of people.”
In Small World, Fox sits straight in his chair with perhaps a slight forward lean. He’s been talking to the press for weeks now, chatting with his loyal customers endlessly. A friend of Fox’s at a nearby table turns our way and catches his eye.
“I’m tired of hearing my own voice,” Fox says to him, and his eavesdropping friend companion claims that he has not been listening. “Good, then I’m putting you to sleep too,” he quips and flashes a smile. Fox’s jocular humility appears disarming as the man and he share a chuckle.
But even as a man who loves to interact with books and his customers, Fox began to consider the option of selling with the dwindling business in his larger shop.
“We had first been approached by an individual buyer, maybe two years ago,” he explained. “And we knew it wouldn’t pan out, and it didn’t, but it made us start to think about the long term prospects for the store.”
No matter the paycheck, Fox wanted to be sure that he could leave the legacy of his bookshop to someone with the talent and expertise to emulate what he has established on Nassau St.
“What we realized was the greatest difficulty was to combine a payday for us of some kind and the knowledge that we were leaving the place with someone who was going to make it even better. …Even if [the initial prospective buyer] had rolled the dollars we were asking for, he didn’t have the extra piece.”
The extra piece in Micawber’s narrative saga came when the University approached Micawber this past fall with interest in its property and a reliable plan for a replacement bookstore.
“When this deal came along, in a sort of very odd way…it was attractive,” he said. “It was attractive because it did combine the paycheck that we thought we deserved and also the reality of a really good book store coming in on our heels, and we just didn’t see how else this would really happen.”
Fox describes the quick decision Griffin and he made about allowing the University to buy the property to allow for Labyrinth’s rise.
“So we finally at the end of the day looked at each other and said we’d be crazy not to take it,” he said.
Although the initial agreement to sell came in October, though, Fox had to stall the announcement to pay deference to the sensitive situation with so many players.
“The University had to be very careful, because there were so many ingredients that went into it,” he said. “You had Micawber, you had the University Store, you had Labyrinth, you have the University, and so they needed everything in line, all the i’s dotted, all the t’s crossed. And so December 4 was the announcement date, we had signed our portion of the agreement earlier than that, at the end of October, so we had the difficult task of sitting on this news for five or six weeks.”
Not being shipped off to Australia in Dickensian fashion, Fox is still uncertain about what the future holds in store for him.
He will begin employment in a four-month consulting position with the University to help with the transition of businesses, and in August once officially unemployed, he plans to travel and visit friends and family.
“I can’t afford to retire,” he claims of his future and his interests in pursuing a completely new field. “I would love to think that I’ll do something else besides bookselling. It’s something I could fall back on, or assume I can fall back on. I love doing it, but I’d like to try something different; I just don’t know what that is. Load skiers on the chair lift in Aspen, ski every afternoon, who knows?”
Micawber must be fully boarded up by March 31, so to leave time for clean up, Fox plans to close down permanently on March 24 or 25. In preparation to liquidate its inventory, Micawber will continue to deepen its discounts, Fox says, until it comes to the point of offering books at $5 or $6 dollars a bag.
At this point as Fox reflects in Small World, the customers have given him the most support.
“In terms of customers, it’s been six, eight weeks of emotion and affection, and it has not dwindled to my surprise, and at moments, to my dismay,” he said. “Because it is just an incredibly powerful moment; I’m trying to hear each and every person, because I know that there will be a moment two years, three years, four years down the road when I’ll remember the time with great emotion myself. So I’m trying very hard to stay present and to allow myself to feel everything. And it’s hard!”
Unlike Dickens’s Micawber character, Micawber Books has paid its debts to society, and its exile is not forced, but indicative of a strategically seized opportunity, decided with love and respect for its customers and community.
Along the side of the store, funky and vintage post cards are lie, begging to be bought and sent. A handsome cherry-wood lectern features Hippolytus and lies near the store’s first cash register, and a spinning rack, advertised as having 1,001 uses, stands perched toward the front of the store. A sign on a for-sale bookshelf on the threshold to the used section ominously reads, “The Book(s) Stop Here” in prophetic realization that there will soon be a time one but one title exists in Micawber as we know it, and then nothingness. It’s almost the notice you’d find at the end of a novel, the end of a master literary work—the end, finis.