The History of Important Paperbacks at D.J. Ernst Books
Established in 1975, D.J. Ernst Books has been a community staple since then. The store hasn’t changed its look, the exterior and interior remaining the same as always. The owner, Donald Ernst, has always had a passion for literature. When the store first opened in the 70’s, Ernst received calls to check on rare books at local estates. He speaks of the “glittering and gleaming” shelves full of such treasures. Sometimes Ernst attended auctions as well, which he laments are no longer popular events. I visited the store on a chilly Friday afternoon where Ernst allowed me to sit on a comfy reading chair. Once he began speaking with relish about the store’s history, he didn’t speak to specific dates in particular, but moments that he remembered fondly.
What Ernst has always remembered are the authors that came in and out of fashion. The first decade of the store’s opening was its heyday. With the bicentennial approaching, books about Pennsylvania history were flying off the shelves. Ernst gestures with his hands as if to illustrate a humongous stack of books which sound like they resemble encyclopedias. These books were popular with his older customers, especially the ones who were interested in genealogy and who wanted to research their family heritage. Some other popular books during the 70’s were medical books from the 1700’s, as well as books about railroads. All of these books are relevant to Pennsylvania history so it’s no wonder they became synonymous with D.J. Ernst Books.
Then there are the books that Ernst feels most passionately about. “Around 1880 to 1930 was the golden age of book illustration,” he tells me. Illustrated books were popular in the store in the 1970’s and 80’s, but not so much anymore. These were over the top, decadently illustrated books that stood tall on their shelves. Illustrators Arthur Rackham and Harrison Fisher were just a few names Ernst recalls. Rackham and Fisher were famous for their lavish and detailed artwork, although they had differing styles. Rackham was well known for his artwork of the Cheshire Cat, Peter Pan, Petruchio, and Ophelia, as well as other beloved storybook characters. While Rackham worked with watercolors, Fisher depicted dramatic feminine portraits. His “Fisher Girl” was also known as the “Gibson Girl,” an iconic figure in the art world. Ernst describes Fisher’s artwork as being extremely popular in the 80’s.
What struck me about Ernst’s interest in these illustrators is that book illustrations are making a comeback. Recently in the world of young adult and children’s fantasy, new “illustrated editions” of classic books are gaining in sales. This new trend began with new illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books. It’s been followed by the Percy Jackson books, another beloved children’s book series. Who knows, in the future maybe illustrated books will make a comeback at D.J. Ernst Books.
Rare books are another interest of Ernst’s. Mostly they were collected and shared at the beginning of the store’s run, but Ernst continues to fondly reminisce about the ones he’s discovered over the years. Notably there was a signed copy of a Robert Frost book, as well as a signed Leaves of Grass. Ernst calls these rare books “points of interest,” the books that everyone really wants to get. These books were never discovered in predictable places. The Leaves of Grass copy was found by Ernst at a yard sale! When asking Ernst what book he would’ve most liked to find, he has an answer ready to go. “An American first edition of Winnie the Pooh,” he says with a smile. I had no idea that such a book was a difficult find, but apparently the illustrator changed after the first printing, so some first editions are incredibly rare. The customer never fails to learn something new when they visit D.J. Ernst Books. If one is unable to visit the store in person, Ernst’s website has a catalog of his book collection. The consumer can have books shipped to them directly from the website, which is reminiscent of Amazon.com. One of the notable categories is “author autographed,” a list which is consistently updated when new books are added.
While illustrated and rare books have waned in customer interest over the years, the current stock is what Ernst is focused on now. The used paperbacks are mainly classics, such as the works of Fitzgerald, Twain, Tolstoy, Hurston, and Christie. Ernst stocks all these classic works because he believes that “they’re the important books,” the books that everyone should read. It’s not just American authors he stocks either. There is classic world literature in stock, everything from Hinduism to British wars.
When you walk into the small store, every inch of shelf spaced is occupied. There are even some mystery books organized on the floor, creating a yellow brick road for bookworms. Among these that used to be popular are Molly Maguire books, which were originally published in the 1800’s. The Molly Maguires was a coal miners society based in Pennsylvania, so the books are of local interest. When Ernst Books first opened, the Molly Maguire books were an easy sell. Similar to the books on railroads, the Molly Maguire books were once popular in the store due to their local significance.
Nowadays the most frequent customers at D.J. Ernst Books are students from the local university. The creative writing program at Susquehanna began the tradition of bringing the students down to explore the store. It continues to be a tradition, and whenever I visit the store other students are there as well. D.J. Ernst Books donates some paperbacks for literary events at the university, such as Poetry Slam’s annual book sale. The store is convenient for students not only due its close location to the university, but for its affordable prices. It’s impossible to leave the store with only one book in hand! There’s even a tiny shelf by the front desk which is stocked with books written by professors at Susquehanna University. Ernst, a Susquehanna alum himself, displays them proudly.
While businesses in Selinsgrove have moved or changed over the years, D.J. Ernst Books has been here to stay. The store began over a love for literature, and it continues for the same reason. It’s a place where bookworms can meet and discuss their favorite stories, maybe even to discover a new favorite book. Where before illustrated stories, Molly Maguire books, and genealogy volumes were popular, now Ernst is sticking with his limitless collection of used paperbacks. According to Ernst, now “I’m selling the same books over and over.” This is similar to what Laura Miller references in her book Reluctant Capitalists. It’s the standardization of books, that everyone is buying the same things and “the computer tends to help reorder again and again the same books that have been selling” (74). She asserts that book clubs work to the same effect. They “marketed the same handful of books to all its” members (59).
Even D.J. Ernst is experiencing a sort of standardization. Even though Ernst stocks classic and out of print books, he also has fan favorites such as A Series of Unfortunate Events. These are the books that draw people in, the people who might not be interested in reading Anna Karenina. This makes the store a place for any kind of reader, whether classical or modern. Ernst doesn’t plan on changing his book selection anytime soon, as he wants to stock used paperbacks for the foreseeable future. If you visit, often you’ll find Ernst repairing some of the older paperbacks in the store, past stories that are now the store’s future.
American Illustration. Harrison Fisher. https://americanillustration.org/project/harrison-fisher/&ved=2ahUKEwjB37u8pN3gAhVGU98KHU_0Bk0QFjAWegQIAxAB&usg=AOvVaw1L6kwTnzolMu1eobS_tisp
Britannica. Arthur Rackham. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Arthur-Rackham
Ernst, Donald. Personal Interview. 22 Feb. 2019.
Illustration History. Arthur Rackham. https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/arthur-rackham
Illustration History. Harrison Fisher. https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/harrison-fisher&ved=2ahUKEwjB37u8pN3gAhVGU98KHU_0Bk0QFjAVegQIAhAB&usg=AOvVaw1mJgGlWmFXkoufOO6Sns4e
Herman, Cindy. The Daily Item. “Taking a Stroll: Treasurers Abound in Downtown Selinsgrove.” http://www.dailyitem.com/news/local_news/taking-a-stroll-treasurers-abound-in-downtown-selinsgrove/article_365f51ce-918d-578c-afa5-fb9bf941d685.html
Pictures by Monet Polny
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press, 2014.