Used & Rare: A History of DJ Ernst
As I walk into DJ Ernst Books, Donald J. Ernst–known affectionately to Susquehanna students as Homer–is already in the midst of a conversation about the types of books he sells and used to sell in his store. He leans on the counter and talks to the group of students around him about the texts he stocks and looks for at thrift stores and book fairs.
“I sell a lot of books on county history and regional history,” he says as I write his words down furiously. “People in their old age like to buy the books for genealogical work. Sometimes I even end up selling collections of books to state legislators. Those are the big items I sell here.”
My classmates and I take in his every word. We’re amazed when he tells us about some of the other books he’s sold over the years: a signed copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a first edition American copy of Winnie the Pooh, and illustrated children’s books from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Like booksellers Frances Steloff (Rogers 71) and Madge Jenison (Jenison 121-122)–whose lives in the bookselling industry are considered legendary by generations after them–the clients he sells these books to are those with the money to dish out thousands for books like these. At the same time, he and Jenison have also tried to appeal anyone who wants to read something with a history of its own..
Homer’s eyes light up as he continues to talk about the books and their publishers, and even though his voice stays even and clear, his moustache-lined smile widens the more we listen. This is a man who knows and loves his books. Of course, this isn’t surprising; 44 years of working with books is sure to give a person some level of expertise. Like his literary counterpart in Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, his knowledge of what he is selling and his enthusiasm to sell the right book to the right customer makes him didactic and make his store a special place in Selinsgrove.
Looking around, I see leather-bound books, yellowing handmade paper signs indicating genres and prices, old magazine and newspaper clippings, torn carpeting, and a (possibly fabric) wallpaper that has to be older than I am. An antique cash register sit in his counter, a remnant of the building’s history as a woman’s shoe store. Homer’s bookstore and life is full of the old and rare. After all, his father was the one, in a sense, who started his interest in the rare and used.
“Dealers and individuals used to come to our house to buy and sell books,” he tells us as he pulls out what looks like a magazine. “My dad would look through these Bookman’s Weekly catalogues and find people who were looking to buy certain books, or if they were selling anything of interest.”
When DJ Ernst Used and Rare Books opened on February 1, 1975, Homer had graduated from Susquehanna University and had developed some of the experience needed to run a used and rare bookstore. Dealers would often come into the store and ask about books and collections he had. He also used the postal system to send books to dealers and sellers, who often sold those books to people all over the country.
Images courtesy of Valerie Erickson (1 and 2) and Erin Reid (3)
“The History of DJ Ernst.” New Timeline – Timeline, time.graphics/line/234266.
JENISON, Madge. Sunwise Turn. A Human Comedy of Bookselling. Jonathan Cape, 1924.
Morley. “Parnassus on Wheels / by Christopher Morley.” HathiTrust, Boston :Ginn,c1938., babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000006155315;view.
Rogers, William G. WISE MEN FISH HERE: THE STORY OF FRANCES STELOFF AND THE GOTHAM BOOK MART. HARCOURT, BRACE AND WORLD, 1965.