Sex, Birth, and Death: The Rise and Supposed Fall of the Independent, Liberal Bookstore
The idea of driving to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania seems like a hassle to most Susquehanna University college students because it is a whopping twenty-five minute drive to get there. Admittedly, I had only been there a handful of times, but I wish I had understood what the town has to offer before my senior year of college.
On a rainy day in February, I embarked on a trip to visit Mondragon Books, a small, independently owned bookstore on the main street of Lewisburg. Upon entering the building, I initially noticed the Basquiat-like drawings on the walls encouraging me to pick up a book and read. This request was not hard to fulfill seeing that there are books everywhere. I quickly noticed that the space is not limited to just literature but is instead filled with art, records, maps, and Victorian-inspired furniture. While the store may seem like a Marie Kondo nightmare, Mondragon Books represents the mismatched identity that Lewisburg is learning to adopt.
Before Bucknell was introduced to the town, Lewisburg was a small town located in the heart of Central Pennsylvania that prided itself on being Victorian. There are still remnants of that identity because the town is filled with elegant architecture and local shops. Although that is the case, Lewisburg is presently known as a college town to the 3,264 students residing at Bucknell. Due to this and the other surrounding schools, education-related professions, followed by administrative work, are the two most popular occupations.
What is most interesting about the town is that it has a high level of specialized occupations, including the arts. I found this to be intriguing because I generally associate art professions with liberal politics. In the 2016 presidential election, Lewisburg was a red town in a red county, as were most counties in central Pennsylvania. Yet, the presence of a college and its outside students forced the town take on an artsy façade. This allows for certain business, such as Mondragon, to exist in a conservative area.
But, maybe I am too quick to judge this town as putting on a liberal façade when there truly are parts of Lewisburg that are liberal in nature. According to Doreen Massey’s definition of a place, a place is not static and is, instead, affected by movement (Cresswell 69). The college students exemplify this notion because they are not necessarily living in Lewisburg year-round. Regardless, they are an integral part of the town and change the definition of Lewisburg.
While the town has been able to retain a rich sense of culture through its independently owned shops, it does have a younger feel to it. Down the road from Mondragon Books, there is a Chipotle-like restaurant called Mercado Burrito. This is not a chain restaurant, but it closely mimics trendier food places that are popular amongst college students.
Students haven’t just influenced the shops but also the general environment. I was happy to notice that Lewisburg recycles, and they want visitors to recognize this. A block away from Mondragon was a completely-filled recycling container. In our current political environment, where global climate change is debated, it is refreshing to see recycling placed at the forefront of a red county.
Although the college has shaped the town, there are other aspects of it that are more reminiscent of a conservative identity. For example, there are plenty of churches in the surrounding area. As a student of art history, I have spent a lot of my time examining religious structures, but the quaint architecture in Lewisburg stood out more to me than the churches. This is partially due to the main street in downtown Lewisburg being filled with small boutiques and restaurants. Religious structures exist near the main street shops but not on the main street. The small shops serve as a distraction from the historically conservative area. It could be a ploy to seem more appealing to potential students visiting Bucknell, but it may also serve to demonstrate how the student life is starting to dominate the space.
Mondragon understands the dichotomy of culture and specifically caters to the college audience. In a way, the bookstore acts as an extension of the college itself. On the outside of the shop, there are holiday lights that students typically decorate their dorm rooms with. This is again seen on the inside, giving the space a homier vibe akin to a residence hall. Additionally, there are signs that promote equality and acceptance throughout the bookstore. Again, this contrasts Lewisburg’s conservative population, but it is not meant to target that audience.
In the book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption by Laura J. Miller, the author delves into the idea that there are three different types of consumers. The three types of consumers are: those that shop for the lowest price, those that exclusively shop at independently owned stores, and those that don’t put much thought into their shopping habits (Miller 16). Mondragon knows that their customers are broke college students, so they appeal to two types of consumers. They are an independent bookstore, so they inherently attract shoppers that like small businesses. Second, they price their books lower than the prices of a chain bookstore. College students can find a wide variety of books without having to pay ridiculous prices for them, appealing to economic shoppers.
Mondragon, and even Lewisburg, may seem out of place in a generally conservative area, but it is important to understand that cultures can clash. While locals may view the town as historical, college students may think that Lewisburg is a quaint town with a vibrant art scene. Mondragon may not be a conservative space, but it still wants to emphasize Lewisburg’s locality and charm. It is clear that the stores in Lewisburg take pride in being there, and Mondragon is no different. They want customers to know they are an integral part of the community because they dedicate precious shelf space to local magazines and advertisements. Mondragon is not trying to rage against the conservative culture but, instead, has learned to form its own identity within Lewisburg.
Mondragon Books and Lewisburg photos courtesy of Samantha Thompson.
Pennsylvania 2016 Election photo < https://billypenn.com>
Google Maps: Lewisburg, Mondragon Books, Mercado Burrito, First Presbyterian Church, Holy Protection Church, Beaver Memorial United Methodist, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church.
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.