A Social (Mon)Dragon
Sarajane Snyder, current owner of Mondragon Bookstore, likes to talk about gardening, which reflects the large gardening section within the many shelves of the store. Sarajane even equates her ownership of Mondragon to that of a perennial. Perennials have three stages in which they grow; they sleep, they creep, and then, they leap. She has been the owner of Mondragon since 2017, and, in her third year, she wants the store to leap.
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Mondragon first opened on June 20th, 2009, by a retired Bucknell University professor. Charles Sackrey, professor from 1980 to 2002, opened the bookstore along with his friends as a way to pursue a passion of his in his older age. It was with his friends that he wanted to call this bookstore “Mondragon” after a town in Spain known for being a collective. In his classes, he would teach his students about economics (as that is what he was a professor of) with a sprinkling of economic philosophy. (Bradt). Specifically, on the Bucknell website, he is listed to have taught “Classical Marxism” and “Theatre and Economics.” (“Charles Sackrey.”) This is funny because he was known to talk to his customers about Marxist philosophy all the time. But, seeing as Marxist philosophy was his main focus as a professor, we can see this seep into the way in which he ran his bookstore.
Mondragon’s stocks come entirely from donations, as Sarajane has told us, even from the beginning. In the beginning, the books were mostly donated from Bucknell’s English and Creative Writing departments. When Sarajane took over, she kept this model of donations, her books mostly coming from friends and customers. Because of this, any amount of money on these used books becomes profit. So, quite often, customers are able to bargain the prices of their books. Sarajane believes in the power of books and the knowledge gained when read. If it was possible, she would make the store a complete not-for-profit business. From what my research has shown, Mondragon did start as a not-for-profit business, but eventually dropped that guise and started selling books at cheaper and more affordable prices. (Bradt).
Marx is known for his socialist ideals of commerce, which is very different from the average American bookstore. In Jack Perry’s “Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist,” he observes the differences between the Communist bookstores of Eastern Europe and the Capitalist bookstores of America. Perry often felt disappointed in the American bookstore. In an observation about American bookstores, Perry notes that “You do not stroll through sections of classics; you march through shelves of ‘Publishers’ Special Cut-Rate Editions,’ or ‘Lavishly Illustrated Editions Marked Down’— the determining principle being price, not content.” (109). That being one instance of many. In the Eastern European bookstores, Perry observes that, “Bulgarian bookstores were popular spots, so much so that often there were long lines outside.” (107). In addition to that, he notes that the literary community would aften flock to bookstores whenever a new book was added to a bookstore, especially ones in those countries. (Perry 108). This type of literary community’s actions can be attributed to the lack of diversity in choice within bookstores; primarily, bookstores would sell propaganda of the state, Marxist and Leninist philosophies, and religious texts. (Perry 107-8). Mondragon does not follow either of these bookstore formats; instead it seems to take a note of Marx’s socialist attitudes. Since the beginning, customers have been able debate over the price of a marked book. Sometimes, books would even be unmarked just so that customers have the ability to name their own price. This practice has carried over into Sarajane’s ownership of the store. In my group’s interview with her, she told us that she believed people should be able to enjoy literature. She told us about such business practices above as well as free books, magazines, CDs, and other types of media (which I will discuss later in this post). In all, it seems as if the goal of Mondragon is to provide literature for all.
Now that the (for now), let’s move into talking about the second class that Charles Sackrey taught, “Theatre and Economics.” What does a bookstore have to do with theatre other than it’s section on plays (which Mondragon notes that they have a great Shakespeare section)? Well, I guess it is mostly a conversation on the performance of a bookstore to its customers and what kind of works are promoted to the community. In a lot of ways, Mondragon takes some of its ethics from Niche Bookstores. In “Feminist Bookstores,” by Daphne Spain, she talks about the ethics of niche bookstores as such. In a case study on Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles, Spain notes the history of this store. I think the most interesting thing Spain delved into in her observation was the expansion Sisterhood built to their store. Spain notes, “The renovation raised the back of the store two feet higher than the rest of the store. The result was a stagelike setting for readings and book signings. Its elevation made speakers visible from the front of the store, as well as to those outside. Sabina Tubal, the author of Sarah the Priestess, thought it made the back ‘look like
a shrine’ to women.” (98). Sarajane has done something similar to Mondragon. Through events and decorations to the store, Sarajane has created a shrine to local creators. The first thing one sees as they enter the store is a wall that displays art created by local artists. When delving deeper into the store, there are art projects made from and devoted to literature hung up. Merchandising created from local artists for Mondragon is displayed with pride along doorways. When asked by our group about what Sarajane wants the store to be, she told us that she wants the store to be a hub to a community that she has the ability to grow. She wants to be able to display the works of local artists. When the weather is nice, she wants to be able to let local farmers, gardeners, and florists to be able to set up outside of her shop as a sort of fair. In the middle of our group’s interview, a customer came in to pick up fresh mushrooms grown by local farmers that get delivered to Mondragon for pick up. From what we got from the interview, it seems as if Sarajane was the one that started this platform for local artists.
Sarajane took over Mondragon in January of 2017. But to back up a little first. Sarajane grew up in the rural areas of
Lewisburg. After college, she returned to the area and wanted to help out at Mondragon in her free time. Eventually, Charles Sackrey let her take on more of a management position and, finally, the store. A lot of the “employees” carried over in the shift in power from Sackrey to Sarajane. By “employees,” Sarajane explained to us that the workers there are all volunteers carried over from the prior ownership, many of them older people in their retirement age. In return, many of them get a free book from the store. In her first year, she sorted the store into the modern Mondragon we see; she organized, categorized, and curated all the used books in the store as that was her big project of the time since there were many books cluttering the area. While curating these books, she started a section of books outside the store in the hallway of the building. She told us that people tend to take the books outside the store. Sometimes, they slip money under the door, but sometimes they don’t. She doesn’t really mind this and actually encourages it with the free magazines that she sets outside the store. In her second year of owning the store, she decided to attempt to take the ethics of the the town of Mondragon by creating a collectively owned store. She told us that this was an experience that inevitably failed due to personal reasons from the other owners. But still, Mondragon stayed open under Sarajane.
There is one thing that is collectively owned that works for Mondragon, and that is the cat. Tiger, a tabby cat, used to be owned by a single mother and her young daughters in one of the apartments upstairs. This family moved out early on in Sarajane’s ownership; the only problem is that the new place they were moving did not allow animals. So, Tiger moved down into Mondragon and stays there. She is technically owned by the family, Sarajane, and all of the volunteers that work there. Tiger has become a staple to the experience of Mondragon.
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In Sarajane’s first year, Mondragon slept while she reorganized it into its modern design. In her second year, Mondragon crept into existence with in-store events, merchandising, and platforming. Now, in the third year, Mondragon wants to leap.
Photos courtesy of Richard Berwind
Most information used in this blog was collected through an interview with Sarajane Snyder (Sited below). All other information collected will be cited under the “Text” section.
Snyder, Sarajane. Personal interview. 22 February 2019.
Bradt, Christopher. “Check Out Lewisburg’s Most Eclectic Bookstore!” Bucknell University Press, Genesis Framework, 29 Jan. 2013, upress.blogs.bucknell.edu/2013/01/29/check-out-lewisburgs-most-eclectic-bookstore/
“Charles Sackrey.” Bucknell University, 1999.
“Feminist Bookstores: Building Identity.” Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City, by Daphne Spain, 1st ed., Cornell University Press, 2016, pp. 84–110. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt18kr5mx.8.
Perry, Jack. “Bookstores, Capitalist and Communist.” The American Scholar, 2001, pp. 107–111.
Timeline made using Time.graphics