Literature on Market Street: Understanding DJ Ernst and Its Surroundings

DJ Ernst Books. Photo by me.

It’s a cold, rainy afternoon, and as I walk onto Selinsgrove’s Market Street for the first time in my college career, I notice how quiet it is. The few people that are on the street quickly go from one store to another, or make their way to the cars and trucks parked next to the sidewalk. If this had been a sunny day, like the many I’ve seen on my way to Susquehanna University, there would be students and townspeople alike walking through town, stopping for a bite to eat at The Kind Café, or maybe stopping at DJ Ernst, a used and rare bookstore found on the north side of the street.

Though I’ve been at Susquehanna University for four years, I had never made the connection to Selinsgrove that I’ve made to the campus itself. Out of political geographer John Agnew’s three fundamental aspects of a “meaningful location,” sense of place (i.e. emotional attachment and experience) isn’t something I’ve had much of (Cresswell 7). I have more attachment to the brick buildings of the school than I do the unique mix of the Victorian and–oddly enough–Greek styles found along this major street.

From left to right: Selinsgrove Commons (not shown), Nouveau Ink, an art gallery, and an Allstate Insurance office. Photo by me.

Another section of N Market Street, including the Pink Pin-Up boutique (the building with the Antiquity-inspired columns and pediment) and The kind Café (far right and partially shown). Photo by me.

Despite my comfort zone ending after a fifteen-minute walk on University Avenue, there’s no way I could’ve spent all that time at Susquehanna without hearing about DJ Ernst and its owner Donald Ernst, better known by the student body as Homer. Anyone familiar with the school’s Literature Club knows that DJ Ernst is a staple in the group’s activities, whether taking trips to Market Street to buy books or selling donated books as a fundraiser.

In fact, much of Market Street is deeply connected to Susquehanna University. Selinsgrove is, after all,  a college town, one that mixes tradition, such as the large outdoor markets at Selinsgrove Commons, with the tastes of the regularly-changing population of students. In a town of over 5,000 people, about 34.3% of the total population (as of 2016; see graph below) is between the ages of 18-24, which applies to many of the college students who live there. Selinsgrove’s economic stability also relies on the families, faculty, and staff that visit and work at Susquehanna University every day.

College students like me aren’t the only ones benefitting from DJ Ernst’s low prices on used books. With a median household income of $40,856 (as of 2016, see graph below), the citizens of Selinsgrove have, on average, less money to spend on things like the often expensive books found in the larger, chain bookstores. Market Street provides both unique and affordable places to shop and eat, which is a major reason why groups such as the Literature Club make regular trips into town for book shopping.

Of course, price isn’t everything. As Laura J. Miller, in her book Reluctant Capitalists, explains, the standardization of the chain bookstores created fears about the standardization of appearances and the loss of a sense of place within the communities these stores were set up in (Miller 110). In such a small town, a large store like Barnes & Noble would stand out amongst the homes and small businesses. As a result, it would break up the image the community has created. Small, residential-looking businesses like DJ Ernst fit right into that small-town ideal, making the bookstore another puzzle piece to the whole that is Selinsgrove.

A look at DJ Ernst’s window display. Photo by me.

Another major factor that makes DJ Ernst fit into the Selinsgrove image is the uniqueness of the titles Homer sells. Many of the books sold there are vintage magazines and titles that may not be carried in chain bookstores, either because they’re out of print or because they’re obscure. While some popular books are sold here (see the copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in the picture above), there are plenty of other books many might have never seen without DJ Ernst. This sense of the old and the unique (as opposed to the new, shiny, and easy-to-find) is a quality that used bookstores like this thrive on, and it reminds those who visit Selinsgrove and Market Street that they’re in an old and unique place.

As I walk towards the bookstore, I keep all of this in mind and look forward to exploring DJ Ernst’s collection. That is, until I discover it’s closed today. On the front door, Homer wrote his hours on a white piece of paper. Two days out of the week the store is closed, and the hours shift irregularly. I remember that Homer, unlike the large majority of the population, isn’t as young and eager as he used to be. I remember hearing from friends that he’s thinking of closing up shop soon. Looking at all of the “For Rent” signs that posted in windows along the street–and then seeing the renovated interior of one building and the Subway across from the more local restaurants–remind me that, like Susquehanna, the landscape of Selinsgrove is changing. Maybe my lack of attachment to the places on Market Street will make the changes easier for me, or maybe I’ll long for places that I could’ve been a part of sooner.

Sources:

  • Cresswell, Tim. Place: a Short Introduction. Blackwell, 2010.
  • Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • “Selinsgrove, PA.” Data USA, datausa.io/profile/geo/selinsgrove-pa/#.