Seeking Place Along the River
Living in Elysburg, only a short twenty-minute drive away from Sunbury, I have always been considerably familiar with the area. Growing up, I sang in choir performances at the Zion Lutheran Church in the center of town, I took a college course at the Charles B. Degenstein Community Library, I attended music festivals and forensics competitions at the Shikellamy High School, I carpooled with my father every day last year to and from Susquehanna, pausing at the Sunbury Hospital drop my father off at work. This sleepy little town was always just that to me – a small town, not particularly remarkable in any way; a place through which we would always drive on our way to somewhere else.
Never having been required to examine Sunbury more deeply than this, taking time to truly appreciate the intricacies of the town revealed much that I most likely would otherwise not have seen or even noticed. Among these surprise discoveries, nestled along the Susquehanna River, is Sunbury’s Bible Depot, a business that I had noticed before occasionally when quickly driving past it, but one which I had never given more than a passing glance. I had no idea that this was more of a bookstore/gift shop than merely a supply store. I suppose using the term “depot” enforced my assumption that this was more of an overstock facility than a small-town bookstore.
I’ve lived most of my life in this area and in all that time, it is interesting, and sometimes surprising, to see which parts of this town have changed, remodeled, deteriorated, and so on. This town is not particularly wealthy, with the median household income averaging around $32,000, according to the Data USA (Data USA). Part of this is due to the fact that the most common employment industries for those in Sunbury are Healthcare and Social Assistance (23.9%), Manufacturing (17%), and Retail trade (14.9%) (Data USA). These trends align with the types of businesses present in this neighborhood. Yes, there is a county courthouse, a prison, a newspaper headquarters, a school district, and a grocery store in Sunbury, but the most prevalent sites in the area are independently owned restaurants, hair salons/barbershops, and churches. Many of these businesses have existed for many years, like the Hotel Edison, named after Thomas Edison and founded in 1865, with only a few odd restaurants or boutique shops going in and out of business.
Walking along the streets of Sunbury I couldn’t help but wonder what a bookstore was doing in this town, especially a Christian bookstore. Upon entering the Bible Depot, I learned that they didn’t merely sell books. Included in the merchandise were a variety of gifts, music (both sheet music and CDs), greeting cards, accessories, and Christian church supplies. Now it was clear to see that the presence of the bookstore coincides with the great number of denominational Christian churches in the town. Though there is a both a Jewish synagogue and an Islamic center in Sunbury, it is clear that the predominating religions are various Christian denominations. In addition, Bible Depot had a considerable offering of retirement planning resource books, retirement gifts, an entire large print book section, and various illuminated reading magnifying glasses to assist in reading small type. While at first I didn’t think much of this, I realized that the store is trying to appeal to the significant population of retirement age and older dwellers in the town. Juxtaposed with these items though was an entire section of children’s religious literature and a special seasonal Valentine’s Day section with religious gifts and books suited for the upcoming holiday. Clearly, the store is aware of the population diversity in the town and is making attempts to appeal to its demographics.
Tim Cresswell tells us that place is a meaningful location defined by its physical location, its locale, and its sense of place – undifferentiated space that is culturally inflected (Cresswell). There have also been two very different understandings of place throughout history. The first of these is understanding place as reactionary and exclusionary, creating a boundary between “us” and “them.” The second is an understanding of place as open and progressive, constantly contingent and in flux (Miller). In some ways, Bible Depot embodies both of these common understandings. Through their branding and name, “Bible Depot,” this bookstore draws a line separating Christian customers from non-Christian customers. Seemingly, it would make no sense for a non-Christian person to enter a store literally called a bible depot. However, this boundary is broken down when one steps inside the store and sees that, in fact, it contains a Jewish section and continuously alter its merchandise offerings to reflect the town demographics and tastes, therefore showing the owners’ understanding of being open and progressive. This bookstore has clearly established itself as a meaningful location within the town, especially to its loyal customers with whom it has become a source of emotional and cultural attachment.
Data USA “Employment by Industries” chart. https://datausa.io/profile/geo/sunbury-pa/
Bible Depot Storefront and local Sunbury church photos courtesy of Olivia Bodner
Google Maps: Sunbury Neighborhood Map
Google Maps: Bible Depot
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.