Places & their Stories: Mondragon Books
Walking down Lewisburg’s Market Street, I felt oddly as if I’d stepped into a book: someplace more characterful, alive, and poignantly imperfect than most of standardized America these days. The cold, dismal rain could do nothing to damper the excitement of discovery from one small-town shopfront to the next. My classmates and I pointed and walked backwards like a group of tourists, gasping at the sight of The Scratching Post—a cat café—and admiring the surprisingly well-kept alleys between old, ivy-crawling buildings.
And yet a sense of sobriety clung to every facet of local character. The indecipherably melted lumps of what had once been fine sculptures from Lewisburg’s Ice Festival seemed to symbolize a greater sense of diminishment, calling out to the dark part of me that harbors the “American tradition of suspicion toward bigness,” as Laura Miller called it. Lewisburg’s uniqueness of identity is already slipping; their McDonald’s, modeled in a Victorian rather than generic fast food fashion, is going to be demolished in less than a week, replaced soon after by the same McDonald’s found in any US town. When its supervisor, Jason Rippon, commented that the new building will “have the same family feel,” the question left unanswered is whether he meant the same family feel that Lewisburg’s own McDonald’s had, or the same family feel as determined nationally by the chain (Scicchitano).
But even in this wake of identity threat, Lewisburg perseveres, boasting its status as a “Pennsylvania Town” and its surviving historical architectures—several of which, indeed, I saw for myself (“History”). The Lewisburg Hotel on Market Street proudly calls out “Est. 1834” to passersby, while a stately clock standing tall on the street corner happily hangs the year 1785 above LEWISBURG’s golden letters.
I must admit, the relatively nice condition of the town takes me somewhat by surprise, given that the poverty rate in the Lewisburg area is 27.9%, and the median household income of $43,214 is lower that of Pennsylvania as a whole.
The largest demographic living in poverty is females aged 18-24, an uneasy statistic to ponder given that it matches the primary demographic of the college students Lewisburg tries to appeal to for economic support and, most recently, its very identity. Nevertheless, that call to college-aged people is apparent in the Bucknell flags hanging from windows, and it must be a success, based on the many youthful exclamations of “Mood!” we carried with us past the shops.
Stepping into Mondragon Books, then, felt like straddling the local and the global. The plump cat curled up on their small, Victorian-esque couch echoed The Scratching Post down the street and fit with the historic aesthetic of the town. A display at the door featured the work of Peterson Toscano, husband of a Susquehanna University professor, and recognizing his name put smiles on our faces. It gave a greater sense of closeness, of local unity. It seemed, to me, a perfect encapsulation of John Agnew’s otherwise vague notion about a “meaningful location” requiring a “sense of place” (Cresswell). The identity of the Lewisburg and Selinsgrove areas—versus any other area in Pennsylvania, or indeed the nation, the continent, the world—must surely lie in the proud placement of a local author’s work, as well as the feeling of thrilled familiarity it sparked in us to see. Put another way, if the meaning of place truly is “slippery as the subject of a book” (Cresswell), then it follows that location-specific authors, subjects, and histories such as those featured uniquely in Mondragon are the very definition of place in—well, in the first place.
When I spotted a shelf labeled “Places & their Stories” in marker by the hand of a real person, living local, who runs Mondragon Books, I found myself actually nodding. Yes, Mondragon, like so many independent bookstores, is both a product and a proponent of its locale: it rejoices in the stories of its neighbors while opening those same neighbors’ eyes to the larger scope of the world outside the uneven sidewalks of Market Street. Lewisburg’s population is 84.1% white, nestled in an area that is predominantly conservative and Christian (“Lewisburg, PA”), and yet Mondragon offers books from all races, all ideologies, and all levels of PC to risqué. Peterson Toscano is neighbor to international bestsellers, and a shelf labeled PENNSYLVANIA lays around the corner from shelves labeled ASIA, RUSSIA, and LATIN AMERICA.
While Barnes & Noble may echo with little variance across the nation, Mondragon stands as a firmly local gem of Lewisburg, PA. I only hope that the fine designs of its character won’t wear away like the Heart of Lewisburg ice sculpture the shop helped to sponsor. That, instead, the economically humble residents of Lewisburg will do as Mondragon’s window sticker says and “Show love, #shopsmall.”
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Blackwell Publishing.
“History.” Downtown Lewisburg, lewisburgpa.com/history/.
“Lewisburg, PA.” Data USA, datausa.io/profile/geo/lewisburg-pa/.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Scicchitano, Eric. “’Victorian’ McDonald’s Aging out as Lewisburg Location to Be Demolished, Rebuilt.” The Daily Item, 1 Feb. 2019, www.dailyitem.com/news/local_news/victorian-mcdonald-s-aging-out-as-lewisburg-location-to-be/article_8363b00b-b88d-5050-9601-708742e75d25.html.
Income chart from Data USA
Photos by Hayli McClain