The Makings of Mondragon

During our second site visit to Mondragon Books in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, I’m not sure what I was expecting. The idea was to talk to the current owner, Sarajane Snyder, about the history of Mondragon. And I got some of that, but only some. Mostly we talked about books. No surprise there. However, a bit of Mondragon’s history leaked into those book-ish conversations, starting with the basics at the very beginning.
When Mondragon was first founded on some undetermined date in 2009, it was by Charles Sackrey, a retired professor from Bucknell University. Clearly, this idea is one that Sackrey wanted to influence his store. The idea was simple, brought all the way down to the bare bones of bookselling: Sackrey wanted Lewisburg to have a used bookstore. It had Barnes and Noble down the street, but no one would argue that there is a distinct difference between an independently owned, used bookstore and a large chain bookstore.
I say “undetermined date” because Sarajane wasn’t able to give us exactly when the bookstore was opened, just that it was “some time in 2009.” It’s interesting that a bookstore wouldn’t keep records of something like when it was opened, but more on that later.
In the mean time, Sarajane, a local of Union County, was living in California. She moved back a few years later and, looking for something to do, began volunteering at Mondragon. Shortly thereafter, Sackrey, now in his eighties, asked Sarajane if she wanted to take over the bookstore.
The rest is history.

Outside Mondragon

But the question remains: Why no are there no detailed records stating important dates for Mondragon, like when it opened, and when Sarajane took over?
Many answers may be found in the name itself.
An important note: the name “Mondragon” comes from a town in Spain by the same name, which is home to “the largest worker cooperative in the world” (“Mondragon Cooperatives: An Alternative to Spains Economic Struggle”).
Sackery may have founded Mondragon with this very goal in mind, to create a local, used bookstore that is owned by the people who shop and volunteer there.
Sarajane told us that, when Sackery ran the store, he was never in it to make money. He was doing it because he loved book, and because he wanted to share that love of books. In this way, Charles Sackery emulated the “myth of the bookseller” in the same way that Roger from Parnassus on Wheels by Christoper Morley does. Neither is solely in the book-selling business for the money. Both have a goal to bring books to as many people as possible, simply because they love books. Though, Sackery may not take this as far as Roger in Parnassus on Wheels does. At one point in the novel, Roger goes as far as to almost “allow” certain readers to only read certain things, at least at the beginning of their relationship with books. When talking about what books he sold to one of his customers, Roger says, “Last time I was there he wanted some Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t give it to him. I didn’t think he was up to it yet” (Morely, 38). Inside Mondragon, I don’t think Sackery ever got to that level, but there are certainly parallels between the two book-sellers.
Sarajane, on the other hand, runs the bookstore a bit differently. Though, it is important to note that she, too, is attracted to the idea of Mondragon being a cooperative, however, she explained to us that creating a successful cooperative comes with its own set of unique challenges.
Apart from that, Sarajane is well aware of the fact that the bookstore needs to make money. One of the first major changes she said she made to the bookstore was rearranging all of the books. A monumental task, in and of itself, barring the fact that she did it pretty much on her own over the span of several months. She said that it was because she wanted to make the bookstore more shoppable, which meant that a large part of the rearranging was putting like books together, and clearing out books that Sarajane didn’t think would be of interest to her customers.

As another way to bring more money into the store, Sarajane (with the help of a very talented friend) made wearable merchandiser for the store last summer, during one of Lewisburg’s many events. She outlined how much work making merchandise really is, how many hours were spent creating the design and actually putting that design into shirts, which is why they are no longer for sale. However, it was a small success that summer, and Sarajane explained the excitement she feels when seeing someone wear the shirt.

 

Mondragon Books shirt

The success of the shirts led Sarajane to explore other merchandising options. Again, with the help of a friend, Mondragon now has bespoke items like cards, bookmarks, and bumper stickers. All of these are items that can either be bought separately, or with a book or two.
None of these seem like major changes, but they are a step towards a new era for Mondragon. Still, there are some remnants of Sackery within those walls, from its relaxed atmosphere to the fact that records still aren’t kept in great detail (hence the fact that it was difficult to pin down exact dates when even these small changes were made to the store).
What hasn’t changed, and likely never will, is the community aspect of Mondragon. Or, as one could even say, the cooperative aspect. As my group stood there with Sarajane, a young woman walked into the store. She spoke to Sarajane as if they knew each other, asked if she was interrupting, and then said, “I just have some books in the back of my car.”
Sarajane ushered my group out, and we carried boxes of books from the woman’s car and into the store, where we were instructed to, “just set them somewhere.” Sarajane laughed and explained that this is how Mondragon works, and that the woman who donated books was also a regular volunteer at the store. We’d just gotten a real taste of Mondragon, and had been swept up enough to unthinkingly participate.
Cooperative, indeed.
It made me think of the feminist bookstore, Sisterhood, from “Feminist Bookstores: Building Identity.” The article talks about how all the business done in Sisterhood is up front, saying, “Simone and Adele conducted all their business at the counter…They made a conscious decision to avoid operating in back offices, believing it to be ‘too corporate'” (Spain, 100).
All of Mondragon’s history is tied up with its name. It began with the idea of being a cooperative, founded by a retired Bucknell professor who, in many senses of the phrase, embodied “the myth of the bookseller.” As ownership moved to Sarajane, the focus shifted a bit, to being more about keeping the bookstore open, though Sarajane is quick to say that Mondragon isn’t exactly profitable. Still, a sense of community lies within this place, one that encourages book donations and volunteering, so that the bookstore is supported by the people who use it (and therefore love it) most.
Given this history, Mondragon seems to be heading back in the community direction. Sarajane briefly mentioned right before we left about the possibility of turning the bookstore into a nonprofit. Possibly moving locations eventually, just to be closer to the center of Market Street.
No matter what happens, how many changes the bookstore goes through, it all seems to be headed in the right direction. A seed was planted by Charles Sackrey in 2009, and it’s time for that flower to bloom.
Works Cited:
Timeline embedded from time.graphics
Photos courtesy of Mac Bowers
References:
“Mondragon Cooperatives: An Alternative to Spains Economic Struggle.” The Borgen Project, 15 June 2017, borgenproject.org/spains-economic-struggle/.
Texts:
Morley, Christopher, 1890-1957. Parnassus On Wheels. New York: The Modern library, 1931
“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.