Used & Rare: A History of DJ Ernst

Ernst and his antique cash register that is located with the thin green arrow on the left.

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.

A copy of AB Bookman’s Weekly Magazine.

“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.

Despite being a Susquehanna alum, and despite his physical closeness to the university, Homer didn’t have much of a close relationship to it after opening shop.
“It took about twenty years to build my relationship with the school,” he says. “It wasn’t until Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke [two of the three original Creative Writing professors; Fincke is noted as the founder of Susquehanna’s Writers Institute] started sending students to me for books that I started doing business with the students.”
Homer even tells us that an alum stopped in about two weeks before this post and bought a book. Even when people are no longer students at Susquehanna University, they still come back to see him and remember their days combing through the bookshelves. For many, coming to DJ Ernst during a visit is almost as important as visiting the campus itself.
Homer doesn’t give any of us exact dates besides the opening, but it doesn’t seem to be a big concern. Homer thinks in terms of decades, giving us whole swaths of time with no specific points. The moments of buying and selling are ever-present and have no needs for exact dates or years. Besides, he seems to be constantly surrounded by the old and historical anyway.
Throughout our conversation, the words “used to” come up again and again. Dealers used to come in all the time. Students used to visit more frequently. He says all of this matter-of-factly, as if it’s just what happens. The building of the bypass that takes travelers away from Selinsgrove, along with the rising popularity in online stores, are some of the many reasons DJ Ernst’s foot traffic has declined. Another is that his books are old.

Some of the used books on display at DJ Ernst.

“Nobody knows who my main authors or titles are anymore,” he explains. “I’ve got illustrated children’s book from the golden age of illustration [according to Homer, from the 1880s until the 1930s]. Drawings from people like Andrew Wyeth and Harrison Fisher. But nobody knows who they are, so they sit here.”
Even as we sit in the middle of the store, the doors stay closed, and the store stayed quiet save for our voices and the sounds of the street outside. We talk for a full hour, yet there is never an interruption, nothing to suggest that the world outside knows the bookstore’s existence anymore.
At about four o’clock, Homer tells us that he’s going to close up shop for the day and go meet friends down in Harrisburg. He says goodbye to us, and we leave. The store is quiet again, with no voices to bounce off its walls or breathe new life into it.
Going to DJ Ernst is like stepping in a time machine, with its old furniture and bookshelves, the yellowing newspaper clippings hanging on the walls, the books that look as if their last owners had read and shown great care with them. It’s a capsule that holds over four decades of memories and literature that’s even older than that. There is a clear love and understanding of books and an enthusiasm amongst those who come here and the man who runs the store. A sort of kinship forms in just one visit that can’t be found in the typical chain bookstore. There seems to be something unexpected in those books that make the place so special and enthralling, even if it’s old. Maybe it exists in Homer’s own excitement, his happiness that comes through as soon as you ask a question about books. There’s something to be said about the power of literature to raise people up and bring them together, and there’s evidence of that ability in DJ Ernst.
Sources:
Images

Images courtesy of Valerie Erickson (1 and 2) and Erin Reid (3)

Timeline

“The History of DJ Ernst.” New Timeline – Timeline, time.graphics/line/234266.

Text

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.