Mondragon Cooperative: Homesickness, Karl Marx, and the Basque Country

When I first heard the name “Mondragon,” I instantly thought of a mythical being, akin to something I would read in a story about hobbits. I quickly learned that Mondragon’s name is more meaningful than a fictional beast.

The term “Mondragon” is specific in meaning because it is the name of the world’s largest owned co-op located in Mondragon, Basque Country, Spain. Instead of relying on a capitalistic hierarchy, the Mondragon Corporation is jointly owned by the workers (Guadiana).

Mondragon Co-op Bookstore and Meeting Space was opened on June 20th, 2009 by Bucknell professor Charles Sackrey. Sackrey was a tenured professor that did not open the bookstore for financial gain but to have discussions with customers about Marxism (Snyder). As the original name suggests, the store was a meeting space filled with books. Unlike the interior now, Mondragon in its earlier state was not optimized for profit. The interior was inherently Marxist because the store emphasized the notion of wanting to be a place for bettering oneself and not a place of capitalism.

Even though the shop has ties to Spain, its history is inherently linked to Bucknell. Sackrey was able to open Mondragon because he did not intend for it to be his primary source of income. He was a tenured professor, so he was financially secure and able to explore other endeavors. Sackrey was likely looking to have more meaningful discussions beyond the classroom and wanted to find other like-minded people- or those willing to challenge him- in the Lewisburg area (Snyder). Regardless, it is impossible to separate Mondragon from Bucknell because it began as a side project by a professor.

Current owner Sarajane Snyder keeps the store open for similar purposes. In an interview, Snyder stated that she is originally from the Lewisburg area but moved away as a college student and later worked on a farm in California. While still living on the West Coast, she realized that she was homesick and decided to return to Central Pennsylvania.

At around the time Snyder moved back, Sackrey was looking to gift the Mondragon Bookstore to a new owner. Sackrey was dealing with health issues, and Snyder just so happened to be looking for a job. Sackrey first asked if those currently working at the bookstore wanted to own the shop, but no one was interested. Soon after, Snyder was named the new owner after inquiring about the position (Snyder).

 

To most business professionals, a change in ownership would be a monumental date, usually marked by some sort of celebration or grand re-opening. While that is typically the case, Snyder does not remember the exact day that she took over Mondragon. I found this to be frustrating when trying to solidify important dates. Nevertheless, the lack of commemoration surrounding this day is indicative of Mondragon’s co-op nature. Snyder did not “take-over” the business in a capitalistic sense seeing that the shop does not revolve around a traditional business hierarchy. While Snyder is “in-charge” of Mondragon, she acts more as the conductor of ideas. Snyder relies on Mondragon’s volunteers and store-visitors for business inspiration. This was made apparent when she asked us, students in a two-hundred level literature class, about ideas for her business.

Another interesting component to the change in ownership is that there was no true business plan. Snyder said that she is still trying to figure out a plan but having a successful business strategy is more of an afterthought than the actual purpose of the shop (Snyder). Mondragon is an establishment that is meant to bring together like-minded people and allow for the exchange of ideas.

Although the details surrounding the relatively-new ownership are murky, it is clear when the change of hand began. Mondragon became more active on social media by the end of 2016, clearly marking Snyder’s influence on the bookshop. Additionally, the handing down of the store resulted in an in-store revitalization- and a shortening of the store name to Mondragon Books.

Snyder remarked that the bookstore’s layout and cluttered nature is reflective of what her personal home and office space looks like. There is a general organization to the building, yet it feels busy due to the packed nature of the store. The store itself is a work of art that is constantly changing and adapting to new ideas. Snyder mentioned that she is still trying to fulfill her role as owner and learning as she goes, and the space reflects that idea (Snyder).

The connection between art and literature is not a new idea, as mentioned in the book Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling by Madge Jenison. The author describes the interior of the independent bookstore she opened with Mary Mowbray-Clarke. Jenison writes, “We had both been talking and thinking a great deal about color since the big post-impressionist show of 1915; and one theory… was that a room should be built from a full prism- that a full chord of color would make a room more alive and complete and restful than two or three contrasted notes can do” (Jenison 17).

As demonstrated by the passage, bookstores are romanticized spaces that are able to encompass the owners’ tastes and appeal to the general public. Mondragon implements this same idea because it is essentially an apartment filled with books, art, and vinyl records. It is appealing to customers because it feels like a home, yet the space is active and promising of an educational experience.

When Snyder first took on the ownership role, she had not worked in a bookstore before. Although that was the case, she did have prior experience selling books. As a young adult, her parents requested that Snyder pair down her book collection. To carry out this request, Snyder bought a stall at an antique market and began her bookselling endeavors there (Snyder).

Mondragon serves as a larger extension of this antique market stall because it is an extension of the bookstore owner. Snyder started out by selling books from her own personal collection and still relies on her intuition when it comes to sorting out books for Mondragon customers. Mondragon receives its stock through book donations, so Snyder is constantly rummaging through piles of books to determine what does and does not deserve shelf space (Snyder).

Snyder calls the store a “friend trap” because she is trying to attract like-minded people through her choice in books. Snyder encompasses the essence of the didactic bookseller image that Laura J. Miller writes about in her book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Some consumers simply want a bookstore owner to be a sales clerk, while other consumers want to engage in conversation (Miller 62). Snyder recognizes that some consumers want to anonymously buy books, but she wants her store to be a place of discussion. Snyder encourages conversation and wants to meet people that are interested in the same subjects that she is interested in. This was evident in the short period of time that I was speaking to Snyder because she was excited to have students in the shop. Though, she did mention that she was paid for speaking at Bucknell and half-joked that she wanted to be paid for this too. Again, this comment emphasizes the bookstore contradiction of wanting to serve the public for the greater good and needing to make a profit to survive.

Through talking with Snyder, it is clear that Mondragon demonstrates the greater idea of the personal bookstore. A personal bookstore reflects the owner’s taste, which is evident in its layout and book selection. Mondragon is atypical because personal bookstores are usually named after the owner. Even though “Mondragon” is not the name of a person, it is reflective of everyone that works there because it is meant to mirror a co-op. While the bookstore is owned by Snyder, it is comprised of volunteers that impact the store just as much as she does. She jokingly added that she practically volunteers herself.

Even though Mondragon has changed a lot within the past few years under new ownership, the creation of the store is tied to Bucknell. Lewisburg is home to Central Pennsylvanian residents, but Bucknell is the main reason why Sackrey was able to open Mondragon in 2009. The bookstore may be independently owned, but its history is inherently connected and influenced by its college residents.

Many thanks to Sarajane Snyder.

Sources

Interview

Snyder, Sarajane. Personal Interview. 22 February 2019.

Images

Photos of Mondragon Books courtesy of Samantha Thompson. 

Mondragon Books. <https://www.facebook.com/MondragonBookstore>

Text

Jenison, Madge. Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1923.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Web Page

Guadiana, Marcelo. “Mondragon Cooperatives: Improving Spain’s Economic Struggle. Borgen Project, www.borgenproject.org/spains-economic-struggle. Accessed 26 February 2019.