The Longevity of Niche Bookstores

Comparison of the paint jobs of the building before and after 2013. Left image from Google Street View, right image taken by Brianna Simmons.

A Brief History of Bible Depot

Bible Depot opened in Sunbury, Pennsylvania in 1931 (exact date unknown) on Market Street, the hub of activity for the town. At some point in the 1940s, the owner, Reverend James C. Ney, wanted to expand and decided more space was needed to stock the store properly, so they moved location from Market Street to Front Street, still in Sunbury. With this new location, James C. Ney added onto the building to make it larger to fit more inventory, which is the building they are currently in. Recently, around 2013, they repainted their store from yellow and blue to blue and white.

Historical Floods: Susquehanna River at Sunbury, Pennsylvania chart

While being on Front Street, they are closer to the river wall that protects the residential and business buildings from the river rising, this doesn’t always help either as they have suffered from multiple floods. The worst of which is the flood of 1972, the only flood classified as “major” for the town of Sunbury. The bookstore has flooded multiple times, the water going as far as up to people’s knees, plenty of books were damaged as the store’s stock is housed on the floor to ceiling shelves. These damages were felt by the whole community as the town is mainly residential.

Bible Depot In Relation To Other Niche Bookstores

Nevertheless, Bible Depot has soldiered on and is still open despite setbacks prone to independent bookstores. Sadly, independent bookstores throughout the years have been subject to closing because of chain bookstores and online platforms for the sake of convenience. Especially niche bookstores, bookstores that tailor to a specific demographic, suffer the same fate as well. Two examples that come to mind are African American bookstores and feminist bookstores, both of which have a contentious history in the United States. The main reason being that their inherent political activism rubs people of the differing opinion the wrong way.

Looking at the African National Memorial Bookstore, a New York City-based African American bookstore founded in 1932, and New Words Bookstore, a feminist bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts opened in 1974, I draw comparisons to Bible Depot. All three of these bookstores serves a specific demographic of people as its main clientele, making them niche bookstores. The African National Memorial Bookstore served mainly African Americans of all ages during the rise of the Civil Rights movement. New Words Bookstore served women, as well as everyone in the education of women in literature and women who write. Bible Depot serves those who are Christian (mainly, there is a small Jewish section), this is their demographic.

The prominent difference between these three bookstores is that Bible Depot is the only one still open to this day. Which is surprising to me, considering the African National Memorial Bookstore opened just the year after Bible Depot. What is the reason for this? In a sense, it would make more sense for the African National Memorial Bookstore to still be continuing, for reasons such as it reaches a larger audience, positioning in a larger city, and more eye-catching advertising (their storefront was very busy). Nancy Ney, the current owner of Bible Depot, says that they don’t spend money on advertising so that the money can go directly back into the bookstore. They have a simple sign that has their name, hours, days closed, and some items they sell at the time of year (the most recent photo advertising their February items). So what are the differences between these two that led to Bible Depot staying open and the African National Memorial Bookstore closing?

Well, the African American bookstore had a contentious life with local police and even the FBI. “FBI agents were ordered to identify black bookstores’ employees and customers, track which books they sold, scrutinize finances, and determine any links they had to local or national Black Power or Communist organizations” (Davis, 63–64). Obviously, no such thing has been done to Bible Depot, this is simply to demonstrate the local and national discrimination that was done to all African American bookstores of the time. To compare the two, Bible Depot doesn’t have any political power rooting against it. The African National Memorial Bookstore lost its building due to rows with the local authorities. Being a black activist bookstore at the time was hard, especially since the government was actively wanting it to be shut down. Bible Depot is a different issue altogether, there is no point in which Christians have been as marginalized as African American people in the United States. This is a prominent difference between the two.

The successes of these bookstores are also linked to the time they were established and with what activist groups they were involved in. In the case of the African National Memorial Bookstore and New Words Bookstore, they were tied to political movements of the time, the Civil Rights movements and the women’s rights movements respectively. Turning to Bible Depot, this sort of political allegiance cannot be seen as with the other two bookstores.

Now, looking at New Words Bookstore in comparison to Bible Depot is different altogether. “New Words closed as a bookstore in October 2002 and reopened as the Center for New Words” (Spain, 108) which closed in 2009. This bookstore was a local hotspot for everyone, not only women. Though that might have been their purpose at first, New Words Bookstore became a place where a variety of people of all ages, ethnicities, and faiths to come and educate themselves. The bookstore also had a strong community built around it, for example, New Words Bookstore was “a politicized gathering space for the feminist community. It was an important social nexus for the exchange of information about significant events, such as an abortion clinic shooting” (Spain, 106). People would come and gather and talk about issues relating to the community they shared.

Bible Depot has a strong community as well, with twelve churches in a 1.5-mile vicinity they have a lot to offer their community. Also, all of their employees volunteer their time to be there and serve the bookstore. Bible Depot will also fully fund any vacation bible school and give supplies for teaching. They want to give back to the community that has served it for almost 88 years, though they have served the community in good faith for just as long.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Bible Depot to these activist bookstores. It needs to be said that Bible Depot is not advocating for any reform to African American rights or women’s rights, but it does promote tolerance and acceptance. The bookstore has a variety of literature for people of all ages, ethnicities, and faiths (going back to the Jewish section), this can also be seen in New Words Bookstore. Promoting intersectionality in literature and community is an important thing and both of these bookstores try their best to promote that line of thinking.

But all of this still begs the question: Why did these two bookstores close while Bible Depot still continues to operate? There are a lot of reasons to look at: First, they have no authority begging for their close like the African National Memorial Bookstore. Second, they have no competition from big chain stores in the immediate vicinity. Third, they have a strong community behind them that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. These reasons show the type of bookstore Bible Depot really is: a hub of activity for Sunbury, among its church community but also the entirety of Sunbury.

Bible Depot is truly a marvel of independent bookstores and niche bookstores in history. Their community has stuck with them through the years and it has gotten them this far. Hopefully, it also supports them for a long time in the future.

 

Sources

Chart

US Department of Commerce, and Noaa. “Historical Floods: Susquehanna River at Sunbury, Pennsylvania.” National Weather Service, NOAA’s National Weather Service, 19 Mar. 2016, 7:41:35, www.weather.gov/media/marfc/FloodClimo/MSL/Sunbury.pdf.

Google Street View Photo

Google. “Google Street View.” Google Street View Maps, Google, Sept. 2012, www.google.com/maps/@40.8647585,-76.7956673,3a,75y,102.56h,91.38t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sy09TqRQ3sY9gnpCcwi7Qow!2e0!7i13312!8i6656.

Photos

Photos were taken by Brianna Simmons

Text

Davis, Joshua Clark. From Head Shops to Whole Foods The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. Columbia University Press, 2017.

“Feminist Bookstores: Building Identity.” Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City, by Daphne Spain, 1st ed., Cornell University Press, 2016, pp. 84–110. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt18kr5mx.8.

Timeline

“Free Online Timeline Maker.” New Timeline – Timeline, time.graphics/.