Matthew 18:20 – The History of a Gathering

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

This powerful verse is found in Matthew 18:20, the namesake of this post and contains words quite fitting to describe the history and mission of Bible Depot in Sunbury, PA. Bible Depot was originally opened in 1931 on Market Street in Sunbury by Reverend James C. Ney of Shamokin. Upon speaking to the current owner, Ney’s daughter-in-law, Nancy Ney, there appeared to be some difficulty in pinning down an exact date for a grand opening as the store had more of a gradual soft opening over a few years. Nancy emphasized that everything about Bible Depot has been a process, something that takes time and isn’t necessarily organizable into particular dates.

 

One of the things I found most interesting was why the bookstore was opened in 1931 and how it managed to secure a foundation and establish itself in the midst of The Great Depression, only two years after the stock market crashed. Any uncertainty or worry Reverend Ney experienced about opening his store was overpowered by his loyalty to his mission – to spread the word of God to as many people as he could. According to Nancy, the Reverend came to know Christ in Shamokin, where he lived at the time, and was so excited about it that he went around telling everyone. He then got some New Testaments and put a card in them so people could get in touch with him to buy a postage stamp or call him and he would then go door to door giving out personal Bibles. He even went so far as to take a trailer to the New York World’s Fair to offer his wares there. This was the start of Bible Depot – not necessarily as a store in a physical building, but almost as a traveling salesman business.

WKOK-AM Radio Station

After settling into its location on Market Street, it was only a few years until, in the early 1940s, Bible Depot outgrew that location and needed to relocate the store to its current location on Front Street, a less busy and more scenic part of town nestled in the residential area overlooking the Susquehanna River. When the WKOK-AM radio station went on the air in 1933, Reverend Ney appeared every week to advertise for the store. Though everything seemed to be going well for Bible Depot, it’s new location put it at risk due to its proximity to the river.

Messages of gratitude left on flood wall after Hurricane Agnes

The Susquehanna River has a tendency to flood frequently and, therefore, created some problems for Bible Depot before the flood wall was built in 1951. Before the flood wall, there were several instances of flooding up to knee level in the store. After the wall was built, Sunbury was protected from many high water events including flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972. In this instance, the wall protected all the residents and the town from harm for which the occupants left messages of gratitude on the wall itself.

Flooding is not the only difficulty the store has faced in its nearly 90-year history. There have also been a couple of incidents regarding the relationship of the store to the local churches. Bible Depot has been a family business since it started, and the ownership was passed from Reverend Ney to its current ownership, Nancy Ney, his daughter-in-law. In fact, Nancy said that she raised her children in the house in which the store operates now when it was all one big cohesive home. However, the upper floors of the house are now two apartments that are available to rent. Other members of the family, like Nancy’s mother, helped out at the store as well. Shortly after Nancy assumed ownership in 1970, pastors from the local churches came into the store and threatened to boycott Bible Depot for carrying a controversial chick tract – a short evangelical gospel tract. Nancy said she spent a lot of time debating about whether to discontinue the chick tract or to continue to sell it and after a lot of prayer she decided not to carry the chick tract anymore. The store was never actually boycotted, but this is a particularly outstanding instance of discomfort between the store and the community.

Church supplies sold at Bible Depot like Communion wafers and anointing oil

Bible Depot carries a widely diverse stock ranging from books to music to games to accessories and much more. Because of this and because of the reputation the store has achieved within the community the customer demographic reflects this diversity. Bible Depot was never exclusively a bookstore; it has always carried Christian supplies and gifts. Therefore, they welcome customers of all ages, from all backgrounds, though typically the one thing all customers have in common is that they are all believers in “the one God,” which is to be expected.

Jewish section of Bible Depot

An example of this acceptance of a diversity of religious backgrounds can be seen in the store’s Jewish section – something that intrigued me on my first visit to the store. After speaking to Nancy a little more, I found out that she was born illegitimately and, therefore, never knew her biological father. When her mother was dying, Nancy was told all about her father including the fact that he was Jewish. Nancy was very excited about this news and this explains the Jewish representation present in Bible Depot.

Apart from selling religious goods, the store also has a heart for missions work and uses money toward missions and child evangelism. There was once a pastor that came in with a similar vision to Nancy and Reverend Ney to spread the Word as much as possible and so he purchased a bunch of Bibles and gave them out to everyone in Sunbury. Bible Depot does similar services with prison ministry because, according to Nancy, doing good work is where their heart is.

 

 

 

Traditional storefront of Bible Depot

Current storefront and signage of Bible Depot

When doing research about Bible Depot, often the pictures of the exterior of the store show a very different image than what exists today – seemingly hand-painted letters spelling out Bible Depot next to the ichthus. Now, the front of the store displays a solid blue background with simple, white, stenciled plastic letters spelling “Bible Depot.” But why the change? Nancy said there really wasn’t a definitive reason, but in 2017, she felt the store just needed an update. So with the help of several people in the community, the storefront was repainted and re-signed shortly afterward to the front we see today.

One of the last things I spoke to Nancy about was what she felt the role of Bible Depot has been within Sunbury. She paused thoughtfully before answering me. She told me the store is a place full of miracles, a place where people may not necessarily come in to buy things, but might just come in to have a seat and have someone to talk to, to comfort them, to give them a coffee. There are area groups that need a place to volunteer and Bible Depot welcomes them graciously. Nancy told me it’s a people place and that “we’re here to bless others with the blessings God has given to us and when we see a need, we ask God for guidance and we pray for people and try to give them guidance.”

Tim Cresswell tells us that “When we look at the world as a world of places we see…attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience” (Cresswell 11). Within the small oasis of Bible Depot, a world of meaning and experience has been created within its walls. It is not unfamiliar for an independent bookstore to be built in a house, or to appear as a home. We see this even as early as Frances Steloff and her Gotham Book Mart in which she, quite literally, lived inside her store. The home-like quality of Bible Depot establishes it as a “place,” a gathering, a community, not merely a store. In Daphne Spain’s examination of feminist bookstores, she quotes the founders of the Sisterhood Bookstore in LA, “’We envisioned it to be a movement place, multi-faceted…And we wanted it to be a place where people could sit down and have coffee, rap or read’” (Spain 94). While Bible Depot is not directly comparable to Sisterhood in many ways, it, too, is an independent, niche bookstore with an admirable mission carried on by Nancy Ney where “two or three may gather” in the name of God. I’m sure Reverend Ney would be very proud of the store today.

 

Sources

Photos courtesy of Olivia Bodner

Photos:

Black and White Storefront.  <http://www.flickriver.com/places/United+States/Pennsylvania/Sunbury/>

Flood Wall Message.  <http://www.sunburypa.org/the-flood-wall.html>

WKOK Radio Station. <http://www.eagle107.com/Eagle_107/107_Station_History.htm>

Images in the Timeline:

Black and White Storefront.  <http://www.flickriver.com/places/United+States/Pennsylvania/Sunbury/>

Current Flood Wall. <http://www.sunburypa.org/the-flood-wall.html>

Current Storefront.  <http://thebibledepot.publishpath.com/>

Flood Wall Message.  <http://www.sunburypa.org/the-flood-wall.html>

WKOK Radio Station. <http://www.eagle107.com/Eagle_107/107_Station_History.htm>

Text:

Cresswell, Tim. “Defining Place.” Cresswell, Tim. Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 1-13. Print.

Spain, Daphne. “The Feminist Bookstores: Building Identity.” Spain, Daphne. Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City . Cornell University Press, 2016. 84-110. Print.

Interview:

Ney, Nancy. Personal Interview. 22 February 2019 & 28 February 2019