There is only one person in Tel Aviv of whom I am truly envious. His name is Yosef. And he has the dream job.
Somewhat surprisingly, seeing as I have lived just ten minutes’ walk away since 1999, I only came across Yosef last month. I have walked passed 87 Allenby Street countless times over the years, but was probably usually daydreaming about some bint or other.
That particular May evening, however, my recent disillusionment with the unfairer sex allowed me to focus on Allenby’s esoteric variety of shops. And, passing a glass presentation case containing a selection of English language books, I decided to follow the inauspicious looking alleyway to its inauspicious seeming end.
The 49-year old sitting behind the counter didn’t appear particularly pleased to see me (if he saw me at all). Like the record store owner in High Fidelity, Yosef Halper, the owner of Halper’s Books, wears the world-weary look perfectly befitting the owner of a secondhand bookstore.
During that first visit, I overheard an American customer inform Yosef that he could buy a particular book “for less on the Internet.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” replied Yosef, with more than a hint of cynicism, “what is stopping you?!”
At that moment, I realised that Yosef and I would be friends.
Originating from Springfield, New Jersey, Yosef (previously James) made Aliyah in 1983, for reasons of “Zionism and the chicks”. Following his army service, he founded a Hebrew superhero comic, which didn’t have a superhero ending; but, after stumbling across Jerusalem’s Sefer ve’Sefel new and used bookstore, in 1990, suddenly understood what he really wanted to do. “I always liked wasting time in bookstores.”
Yosef, newly married, returned to the US for nine months to gather his thoughts, some cash . . . and some used books to ship back. He opened Halper’s in 1991, just before the outbreak of the first Gulf War, and 18 years later it is still there (no mean feat in Israel). Halper’s replaced a typewriter repair store, which – in typically upbeat fashion – Yosef describes as “another dying industry . . . just like books.”
Halper’s is situated between Mazeh and Montefiore Streets (a few hundred yards from Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue), an area which has undergone significant gentrification since 1991; and, while some of the “whores and used needles” remain, reflects Yosef, the “burlesque house” opposite – with its “stripteases and porno movies” – is long gone. I get the strong sense that Yosef wishes it had stayed . . . instead of the inevitable higher rents which have followed Allenby’s cleaning-up.
Halper’s is an English language oasis in a largely Hebrew and Russian speaking desert. Of its approximately fifty thousand titles, about two-thirds are in English, making it – Yosef believes – the largest English language bookstore (new or used) in Israel. And customers can take advantage of a forty percent rebate on returned books.
The wealth of sections in Halper’s would put many used bookstores in English-speaking countries to shame – in particular, I couldn’t help but notice its extremely impressive philosophy section, with hundreds of titles for me not to choose from (I haven’t picked up a philosophy book since completing my first degree, but still like to impress [myself] with my familiarity with philosophers and their inconsequential meanderings).
I decide to test Halper’s fiction section by seeing if it has anything by my childhood next-door neighbour (in Edgeworth Crescent, Hendon), Clive Sinclair. To my astonishment, I find four titles, and snap them all up. I have also cleared Yosef’s shelves of Clive James, and am in the middle of Antony Beevor’s gripping account of (the Battle of) Stalingrad.
In addition to English-speaking Olim (immigrants), Israeli and Russian intellectuals and academics feature prominently among Halper’s customers, as do foreign workers – the many Filipino care workers in Tel Aviv, Yosef tells me, are particularly keen on romance novels – and embassy officials. Perhaps its most surprising patrons, however, are Tel Aviv’s Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who request that Yosef conceal their purchases in black plastic bags.
In the same way that watching professional football (“soccer” to Yosef) can never match the authentic experience of Hendon FC on a miserable Tuesday evening, there is something refreshingly “real” about secondhand – as opposed to new – bookstores. And, in the several hours I have now spent in Halper’s, I have already come across many weird and wonderful characters, not least the fifty-something Israeli with the implausibly tight shirt who rolls in with a trolley-full of books scavenged from Tel Aviv’s refuse – a daily occurrence, Yosef says – and who also attempts, unsuccessfully, to flog Yosef an original photograph of Golda Meir.
Yosef’s sideline is dealing in such memorabilia, much of it pre-State. His biggest sale was of a typed reply by Albert Einstein to a request from an emissary of Lechi (the “Stern Gang”) – dispatched to the US specifically for the purpose – for financial support. The gist of Einstein’s refusal was that “If tragedy should befall the Jews in Palestine, it will be because of the British, but also because of people like you and the organization you represent.” Yosef regrets the sale of this “extremely significant letter”, to Sotheby’s, because it was “lost in the middle of a rare book auction”.
Yosef also found, in a newly acquired secondhand book, a handwritten “thank you” note from Sigmund Freud, which he returned – following a hysterical phone call from the book’s previous owner – “after sleeping on it and debating with my conscience”.
His biggest book sale – to a collector in California – was of a second edition of Anne Frank’s diary in its original Dutch, though undoubtedly his most original and prestigious was to Buckingham Palace. When the Internet order came through – for a biography of King Christian IX of Denmark (for the Palace library) – Yosef “thought someone was pulling [his] leg”, but a phone call confirmed its authenticity. And Yosef packed a few Halper’s fridge magnets for Queenie, for good measure.
Internet trade has, however, according to Yosef, become the victim of its own success – the Web has made it far simpler to locate books these days, with the consequence that many titles which might previously have been considered “rare” are no longer.
Of course, in running a retail business in Israel – especially a secondhand one – Yosef has to put up with untold shtiklach (Yiddish for “idiosyncrasies”). “Some customers are unwilling to pay for books which they realise have been found. And when a book, in good condition, is marked at forty shekels, I get people arguing that they ‘can get it new at Steimatzky’s for sixty.’ And then there are those who say ‘Look, this book is marked a dollar fifty!’ What they forget to mention is that it is rare, out of print, and was marked that in 1950!”
Halper’s obtains a large part of its stock from estates of the deceased, including from, in the past, those of Moshe Dayan and murdered Knesset member Rechavam Ze’evi. And it acquired much of former President Chaim Herzog’s library, too, from an alte zachen (“old things”) cart that happened to roll past 87 Allenby.
On another occasion, Yosef was called to clear the impressive library of a bankrupted lawyer, whose name he wasn’t told. An inspection of the books revealed that many had been purchased from Halper’s. The lawyer visited the store shortly afterwards, seeing his former collection on Yosef’s shelves. But neither uttered a word about it.
Amongst Halper’s more famous clientele are artist Menashe Kadishman, musician Kobi Oz, and political commentator Aluf Benn. Amongst its more infamous is ex-President Moshe Katzav – about to stand trial for rape – a collector of Judaica (especially Passover Haggadot) . . . though, as Yosef remarks drily, “I guess he has other worries right now”. Like Katzav’s relationship with his former office, that with Halper’s also ended in acrimony, when Yosef – not unreasonably – eventually sold books put aside by Katzav, but which he did not collect. “He was a nice guy,” recalls Yosef, “if a little brusque.”
Halper’s, Yosef observes, is “a pleasant way to make a very modest income.” If he ever tries a desk job, he will understand my envy. (And, with the publication of this post, I can surely now safely own up that Stuey is the one responsible for the chewed spines on his lower shelves!)
Above all else, what amazes me most about Halper’s – if you will excuse my Zionist idealism – is the wealth of English language culture and learning that it reveals in this tiny, miraculous Middle Eastern country . . . though we are, I suppose, the “People of the Book”.
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