Mondragon: Around Since Who-Knows, and May it Stay Forever
Living in a world where information is available at the tips of one’s fingers, I’m amazed at the old-age vagueness surrounding Mondragon Books. No one seems to be quite sure when it opened. Sometime in 2009, we were told, but even the year itself seems more yeah-I’m-pretty-sure-that-was-when than a date set in stone.
I arrived to the warmth of bookshop conversation. Rubbing the winter cold from my hands, I joined my teammates as quietly as possible, hating to interrupt the flow of friendly chat they already had underway with the current owner, Sarajane Snyder. Classical music played behind her on the old record player that had been silent when I first visited Mondragon Books. The atmosphere it created was everything a small-town bookstore should be—or, at least, everything a small-town bookstore claims to be in the imagination. And likewise, Sarajane seemed somehow to fit the aesthetic of the independent bookstore owner.
From her horn-rimmed glasses to her orange sweater vest, from her silk scarf to her infectiously laid-back demeanor, Sarajane matched the eclectic, hand-me-down look of the background behind her. And although she mentioned how she would like to move the bookshop to a better location—away from the noisy, sometimes odd-smelling apartment building that she worries might turn people away from Mondragon—I couldn’t help but love the air of well-worn secondhand-ness that Mondragon lived and breathed.
Before Sarajane, Mondragon was owned by its founder, Dr. Charles Sackrey, a professor of local Bucknell University. His background as a teacher of “economic principles” and the “social problems of modern capitalism” were no wonder to me after hearing Sarajane laugh fondly that Dr. Sackrey used Mondragon Books as a place to discuss Marxism with anyone who stopped long enough to listen. In this way, Dr. Sackrey created and used the bookstore as a place of discussion, debate, and self-education for its patrons. This is obviously quite different from the average corporate bookstore, such as Books-a-Million or, more notably for Mondragon, the Barnes & Noble located down the street. Retail workers are instructed to pleaserather than provoke their costumers. While Barnes & Noble will stock books on Marxism, the store itself would never take a side on it—or on any other issues, for that matter. Picking controversial ideological arguments does not a good business model make. At least, not in the eyes of the corporate world. So it’s a good thing for Dr. Sackrey that life and work mingle more freely in an independent bookstore setting—as seen with not only Mondragon, but with many of the bookstores we’ve studied, such as Sisterhood, which was created to be “a movement place… where people could sit down and have coffee, rap, or read” while learning about women’s issues (Spain).
In fact, the very name “Mondragon” comes from a community- and worker-based corporation in the Basque region of Spain. It had been founded originally in a town called Mondragon, giving it—and, later, Dr. Sackrey’s bookstore in Lewisburg, PA—its name. The corporation now describes itself on its website as “a fair, equitable and supportive proposal,” having “a business model with a difference, based on inter-company co-operation, people playing a leading role” (Ucín), and this aligns pretty perfectly with what Dr. Sakcrey managed to create. The “workers” at Mondragon Books have always, in fact, been made up mostly of friends and volunteers willing to mind the shop a while in exchange for book voucher—which Sarajane showed us but, unfortunately, did not give us.
Although Sarajane promised us that she wouldn’t start the same Marxist spiel that her predecessor would have, she seemed more than willing to preserve Mondragon Books’s position as an active public sphere, welcoming the community around her to be a greater, more personal part of the shop than any of Barnes & Noble’s costumers could possibly be for theirs. While we were there with her, Sarajane handed out maps of the store she’d drawn herself, by hand, and printed in the back. She gave us fliers promoting Mondragon’s events and activities, including a sci-fi book club and a weekly crafting session with old book pages, and beautiful printed bookmarks with Mondragon’s name across them. Then she was interrupted by a local woman politely ducking her head in the door and saying, “Sorry to butt in on your meeting!”
Sarajane assured her it was no problem—we were all just chatting, nothing big—and then she opened the mini fridge under their coffee and tea station, retrieving a bag of fresh mushrooms for the woman, who thanked her and walked off happily with her bag. We learned that Mondragon Books doubles as a pick-up spot for Greenwood Farm’s mushroom orders. We were as impressed as we were amused by this quirky weaving of local businesses.
After that, Sarajane told us how she’d inherited the shop—and how it had been rather by accident. She’d lived in California for a while after college, working on a farm, living the lifestyle of idyllic, time-killing self-discovery that I felt a dreamy jealousy for, until she decided to trade the Californian hills back for the Pennsylvanian ones that reared her. Perhaps it was her hint-of-hippie background that called out to the Dr. Sackrey, who dreamed up Mondragon Books as a readers’ commune of sorts. Although Sarajane had never owned or even worked in bookstores prior to finding Mondragon, she very quickly found the keys being offered over to her. Dr. Sackrey had grown too old to keep it up himself, and many of his reliable volunteers had aged along with him; he needed younger blood, willing and ready to keep the bookstore going for him. And indeed, Sarajane had already proved herself more than willing to carry Mondragon’s weight. She shared her hopes of making the shop a nonprofit one day, if she can, and shot off all the many ways she already sought to improve the shop’s business: more event days, rearranging everything for better organization, offering tea and coffee, roping a printer friend into swag-creation, and adding a desk for people to sit at and write, read, hang out a while. Where Dr. Sackrey had some luxury of running the bookstore for mere fun, Sarajane clearly has a better sense of money. She’s quite possibly as “fantastical in saving and scrimping and stinting” as Frances Steloff (Rogers), although luckily, she’s also just as charitable and trusting of her community. Beside the record player, a handful of Ghirardelli chocolates sat in a dish that might have been picked up for five cents at a yard sale: the perfect image to encapsulate her co-existing desires to save and to give.
Thanks to things like this, Mondragon Books has persevered after Dr. Sackrey’s tenure stopped shielding it from the reality of an independent bookstore’s struggles. Now, Mondragon has survived thanks to its connection to the community. This connection can be seen all through their Facebook page, from hand-written signs reminding everyone about sci-fi book club, teasing posts about their “silly friends” dressed up for Halloween in front of the shop, requests for bubble wrap to ship their Amazon orders, and photos of people joining in their #bookfaceFriday joke.
Just as the odd volunteer worker or affectionate patron manages to patchwork their way into harmony with book covers, Mondragon had managed to sew itself into the quilt of Lewisburg—and if no one can quite pin down the date Dr. Sackrey first took the needle to the fabric, well, that only speaks to the casual sincerity of the bookstore. Like an old friend, there is no definite First Day to pin down on a calendar. But it’s there, now, and well loved by everyone who helps support it from one tomorrow to the next.