A vital cultural toehold in the Susquehanna Valley, PA
May 20, 2018
My hosts in the third week of May were Casey, a Pennsylvania-native who stayed with us in Cornerstone Housing Coop 7 or 8 years ago and his partner, Sierra. Casey works/volunteers at the Mondragón Used Bookstore in Lewisburg and lives in Milton, both in the Susquehanna Valley, Central Pennsylvania.
The bookstore is coop-friendly, rather than being an actual coop. Over lunch with most of the management committee we discussed their learning and thinking over the last 6 months, about moving from being a sole-proprietorship, recently thrust on the shoulders of the lovely Sarajane, to some kind of coop.
Like all used bookstores, it's a struggle to keep going, despite being mostly staffed by volunteers and having a great rent deal with their quixotic landlord. It only exists at all because Lewisburg is a university town, home to Bucknell University, and the bookstore was set up (about 8 years ago) by a retired professor with no need for an income. It carries on because so many people love the bookstore and so many people love Sarajane, whose living costs are thus very low. It is evident that it fulfills a cultural need for a progressive space in what is almost, but not quite, a liberal town in a conservative area.
It will surprise no one reading this blog that, at least in the English-speaking world, trying to make a small used book store cover reasonable wages and rent is like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone. And yet, we all want to do it, because these shops are among the few physical access points to radical thought and culture. They are meeting spaces, they are sharing spaces, they are often spaces where you can chill for a while without having to buy something, they are often friendly and are usually full of the poster- and leaflet-based communications of an alternative or passionately questioning or actively political social scene. Bookstores have been my sanctuaries on this trip and where I've had some great chance encounters - I do love libraries, but they're not great for striking up conversations with strangers.
The valley itself is beautiful. Here are the views of the Susquehanna from Sierra & Casey's flat and from the ground the following day - I didn't notice at the time how much the weather had stirred up the mud in the river:
As well as the Mondragón lunch, Casey and I hosted an evening of discussion for thinking strategically about the solidarity economy in the Susquehanna Valley, with folks from MIlton, Lewisburg and Sunbury. We talked about how valuable the bookstore is culturally and socially, but it was clear that it couldn't serve the purpose of generating incomes. Various ideas were thrown out for workers coops (composting, veg growing, etc) and also the idea of building up membership in existing social clubs, rather than trying to start a new one. Politically challenging is an understatement for what that would mean in my opinion, although quite a fun challenge! We're talking about The Lewisburg Club, or The Moose Lodge or The Hose Company - and it turns out that one or two folks in the room were already members and thinking along these lines.
One of these forward-thinking individuals is the wonderful Peterson Toscano - heading off later in the year on his own tour, including performances in Leeds :-)