DJ Ernst Books: A Passion that Has Stood the Test of Time

On February 1, 1975, Selinsgrove’s most notable independent bookstore, DJ Ernst Books, was founded. Neither Ernst nor his father, who originally opened the shop, had any real experience in bookselling. Business was booming for Ernst as he learned the ins and outs of bookselling on the job, and in the early process established a community with other booksellers, as well as with the community of Selinsgrove.

In the first thirty years of business, DJ Ernst Books’ niche products were a perfect fit for the small town of Selinsgrove. The bookstore’s specialty was local Pennsylvanian history and featured genealogies and immigration records. Many residents came to the bookstore in search of their family history, typically older customers looking to understand the legacies they would eventually pass on. In addition, DJ Ernst sold antique books, out of print editions, and unique historical texts such as records of expeditions during America’s era of discovery. Ernst’s bookstore thrived off of intentional and specific clients, those that would come specifically to complete collections or find special editions of a classic novel. The owner recalled how familiar he became with his customers because they had such specific interests that the average book buyer did not typically have. At one point, Ernst sold an entire stack of history books to a customer for $3,000 in one visit. In that sense, DJ Ernst Books catered to the community’s interests in a way that not many other bookstores in the area had done before. DJ Ernst Books became the most prominent source for classical or antique literature. The bookstore established itself within the community of Selinsgrove, and while the town is still standing, that community of antique finders has not seemed to continue into today.

This is an example of an antique book from DJ Ernst Books on local history

Ernst attributes this change in clientele interest to several factors. He said that people now just are not interested in classical or antique literature. To prove this, he would mention the names of classic illustrators or authors that would have held literary weight thirty years ago, but mean next to nothing to a younger generation. Most of his clientele upon first opening were older and some have since then passed away. Additionally, they seemed to be the only demographic knowledgeable of older texts, the only ones who understand how rare signed illustrations by Andrew Wyeth or Harrison Fisher are. As a result, customers with those specific interests that he has always catered to are in low supply, just as old books are in low supply for him. In this day in age, booksellers online are peddling those niche products so that customers do not have to physically go out and look for them in shops like DJ Ernst Books. The internet has made a large part of Ernst’s business null, as the bookseller pointed out. Now those interested in history do not have to shop around in a number of bookstores to find what they need, instead, they can simply search for that information online.

Most notably, however, the Internet has made the community of booksellers in the area that DJ Ernst once thrived in much different and scarce. The shop owner clarified that 50% of his sales were, in fact, to other booksellers. He would go to auctions and sell his wares at book fairs and markets, but not anymore. At this point, as Ernst confessed, he doesn’t know what the market looks like anymore, and it is no wonder considering the fact that booksellers do not communicate with each other in the way they used to. In the 60s and 70s, Ernst connected to a network of other booksellers through a magazine called Bookman’s Weekly. It acted as a directory for booksellers in the area to communicate and cross reference each other’s products to find what they needed for buying or for selling. If you wanted to stock up on more texts about Jewish history, you would pick up Bookman’s Weekly and look for a bookseller who carried them. Then, you would call him or stop by his shop to make a personal connection through a mutual love of literature. Bookselling was a personal and community-based process, but now through the Internet, it is impersonal and detached. Those other booksellers are also not as common as they used to be, many of whom have retired or passed away. Of course, this is a recurring and natural change in the bookselling market. As Laura J. Miller states in Reluctant Capitalists, “commerce is culturally marked: the way it is understood and practiced depends on specific historical and cultural contexts” (9). As the modern world digitizes, it is an eventuality that booksellers such as Ernst will be affected by that change.

Milestone chart

Nevertheless, DJ Ernst Books itself has not changed much on its own in the forty years it has been in business. The most significant event in its history since its founding was a fire in the neighboring building, the event of which the owner himself had not mentioned, but documented extensively on the store’s Facebook page in 2015. On September 18, 1990 the Romig building on the corner of the street and to the bookshop’s right caught fire and was destroyed. Thankfully, due to an extra layer of brick wall in between the two buildings, DJ Ernst Books was left standing largely undamaged. The owner and a few friends were able to save two truckloads of books, paintings, files, and other products while the firemen did their best to protect what was left. The bookshop was left slightly worse for wear, suffering some water and smoke damage, but not enough to destroy the building itself. Even still, and even after a large fire threatened to destroy it, the interior of the bookstore has barely changed in design since the 90s. Ernst’s bookstore is very much a personal endeavor, so much so that the interior reflects the man who runs it. The owner feels no need to change it because his feelings towards books and a place for books has not changed.

Another significant change that occurred in the 90s was the introduction of the Writer’s Institute in Susquehanna University of Selinsgrove. Writing professors Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke immediately established a working relationship with DJ Ernst Books. Students and sometimes entire classes were sent to the bookstore by writing professors with book recommendations or with the goal of appreciating and supporting older literature. Although this productive relationship has since slowed due to many of those professors moving on from the university, there is still an established connection. Students sometimes visit the store of their own accord and the Literature Club on campus has many books bought from DJ Ernst.

During the site visit, the owner said something that has stuck with me since. He said that the changes to his bookstore will not mean anything to us because we can never know what the shop truly felt like in its prime and that we can never understand exactly how different it is now. I would argue that Ernst himself can never truly understand what the world was like in the antique books that he is so passionate about. Even still, he reads them and absorbs the information, appreciates them, and encourages others to get lost in the narrative of a time period before theirs. That is what literature is for, to read experiences outside of our own, and that is what my team was doing at his bookstore. We were absorbing his tales of the history of his bookstore and gained a new appreciation for not only the longevity of his unique business, but also for the man who has kept it running for decades. He mirrored the qualities of the ideal bookseller that Morely describes in Parnassus on Wheels, someone who values the content of a book much more than the profit he gains from selling it. This is evident in the fact that even though he makes very little overhead, he continues to sell quality books to those he calls “book people,” those who also value literature from all time periods. Even while other independent shops in town have closed and gone out of business, even while the world has changed how bookselling is conducted, and even while a disaster was a few inches away from destroying the entire building, this small bookstore has consistently been left standing.  DJ Ernst Books has survived fire, time, and outside change, and yet the heart of the business, the passion for quality books for quality readers, has not changed at all.

Photos

  • All photos courtesy of DJ Ernst Books Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/djernstbooks/photos/

Timeline

  • Timelines made using Time Graphics: https://time.graphics/updates/new/234798

Texts

  • Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Morely, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. Ebook #5311, Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5311/pg5311-images.html.