Yosef and the Amazing Secondhand Bookstore

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.

Yosef HalperThe 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.

Yosef with customer, a visiting philosoply professor from Boston University

Yosef with customer, a visiting philosophy professor from Boston University

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”.

halpbook@netvision.net.il, (03) 629 9710.

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24 responses to “Yosef and the Amazing Secondhand Bookstore

  1. daniel hass

    a hidden gem…

  2. Yo…Does this mean that I will have to give you a discount from now on?

  3. Jonathan Bernstein

    Not a discount, a commission on blog-derived sales.

  4. Mike –
    Thank you for your well written piece on Halper’s. It’s about time that this treasure chest was recognized as the incredible resource it is. Its value in Tel Aviv has gone unnoticed for far too long. I am particularly intrigued, however, by your apparent fascination with Yosef Halper. Not a hint of sarcasm in your description of him! I would have to say it borders on man-crush.

    While I am not a resident of Israel, I have visited Halper’s on several occasions during my travels. I have also found that Yosef possesses an irresistibly droll quality that renders him quite compelling. And I am someone who finds it easy to resist most of the human race.

    I have to wonder, though, if you actually purchased any books while you were there, or were you just soaking in the musty literary ambience?

    I will be back in late August and plan to drop by Halper’s after I abandon my family outside Jerusalem in order to pursue other interests. I intend to request that Yosef set aside several of the Russian classics in English translation as well as Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in the orginal to accompany me on my solo journey. I am confident he will not disappoint.

    Kudos to you for discovering and formally applauding what many of us have known for a very long time.

  5. “A discount”, Yosef?! Cost price!

    Re “man-crush”, Anonymous, no offence to Yosef, but he is not really my type! I do appreciate the cynicism though . . . and he has got the perfect job. (I have purchased books – reread my post!)

  6. Re secondhand bookshops:
    There was an insurance inspector who visited my place of work a while ago. The boss managed to get him chatting about things off record. The conversation digressed to his hobby. An avid book reader, with a meta memory who read 3 books per week and memorized the plots and the main characters of every book he read. Once, his act of righteousness/mistakenness was to bring to an unaware shop owner’s attention (shock followed by ungrateful relief) a 1st edition Stephen King novel on the shelf at the time. It was removed promptly.

    Re the Lechi:
    During the festival of Pesach/Passover 2 months ago I was sat across the table from a wheel chair bound son of a Stern Gang freedom fighter (some say it was the factionalism of the Lechi which led to the unpunished crimes committed at Deir Yassin). He told the story of how his father met his mother. A date arranged by a mutual friend whose house they were to meet at. On the bus on the way there his father was sat opposite a very attractive woman (who turned out to be his date but he didn’t find out until later). As he got off the bus he made a resolution in his mind that if the date didn’t work out he’d go seeking after the woman who took a different route to the friend’s house after alighting at the same stop.

    He continued the story, saying that his maternal grandmother had been killed by an Arab, that his father sought out the same Arab and avenged the killing. At that point the people listening around the table were too engrossed in the story to make any mother in-law jokes.

    All’s fair in love and freedom fighting.

  7. richardmillett

    “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.”

    Nice anecdote but how did Yosef find out about this?

  8. “Nice anecdote but how did Yosef find out about this?”

    A legal firm, with expertise in pillaging, called me. Once I discovered the books he purchased from me, I went outside to check the name on the mailbox.

  9. Rita Usdin Bayrasli

    I am one of those fortunate Jews who has been looked after by a loving family. My trip to Israel was one of the most meaningful gifts given to me by my brother. It was the answer to a long time dream. My visit to Halper’s was made with his family (mother, father, sisters, brothers-in-law and children of same.) How fortunate can you get. Seeing Jamie again was a joy in itself but, being in his shop was extraordinary. I bought a book of love poems for a couple in our families (the Usdins) group. I wish I had got lost in the stacks when it was time to go as I would be there still.

  10. Extraordinary character. Unbelievable wit. Super intellect. One-of-a-kind original. Loving brother. That’s how I would describe Yosef (James).

    And Halper’s Books? Beyond words…

  11. A good host, too . . . and his missus ain’t half a good cook!

  12. mitch slater

    I can vouch for james (yosefs) love of books – i was the guy who had to go to all the bookstores with him growing up….
    I actually envy yosefs career choice – less stress – more independence – surrounded by a great wealth of history – rather than my choice of financial wall street ruins…

  13. It is great having an objective viewpoint from my little sister. Thanks El!

  14. In addition to the fantastic selection of books, my favorite aspect of Halpers is the wide selection of Skoal and Chewing Tobacco. I am sad to be leaving Israel in a few months, we will miss you Halper!

  15. I will miss you too, homeboy.

    I just ordered a spitoon for the store, but who will use it if you leave?

  16. Hello Jersey Boy! You better be warming up the headlights on that Spittoon; I will be needing it come the first of February. We are looking forward to seeing you and Eran! Tell Eran to keep his “little grey cells” working!

  17. Was in Halper’s the other day, when Yosef related an interesting, if disturbing, development regarding Einstein’s letter refusing Lechi’s request for financial support, which had been in his possession. I wrote in my above post:

    “Yosef regrets the sale of this “extremely significant letter”, to Sotheby’s, because it was “lost in the middle of a rare book auction”.”

    Well now Yosef “regrets” it even more, having recently discovered that the letter was bought by the Deir Yassin Remembered organisation, and is being used to bash Israel:

    http://www.deiryassin.org/einstein.html

    What probably makes Yosef equally sick is that the organisation paid over $10,000 for it!

    Talking of Yosef, tomorrow sees the gala opening of Beginnings, an exhibit of the wonderful pastoral paintings of his artist wife, Rivka. It is at 8pm, in the Sharett Hall, Petach Tikva Municipality, Chaim Ozer Street, Petach Tikva. I will be there, and Yosef cordially invites all readers of melchett mike. The exhibition runs until April 5, 2010 (information 054 545 1984).

  18. Philip Witriol

    This former secondhand bookseller, albeit at the bottom of the ladder (namely a market stall), enjoyed this review. See here for some terms used by another witty reviewer of secondhand bookshops:
    http://www.inprint.co.uk/thebookguide/drif-isms.htm

  19. May it be noted for eternal posterity in the hallowed annals of the Melchett Mike blog (and that of Halper’s Bookstore), that Joel Coen, of the Coen Brothers, was spotted browsing the “books on cinema” section of Halper’s Bookstore from on or about 11:15 to 11:30 on March 15 2011. (Didn’t buy nuthin though). He DID take a business card and asked Halper where he is from and how long he’d been in Israel. Halper jokingly initiated the conversation with the pick-up line the likes of, “Jeez, by coming here you saved me a trip to the Tel Aviv University to hear you speak, thanks for visiting my store.”

  20. Wow! First, melchett mike. Now, Joel Coen . . . where is there left for Halper’s to go?!

    I trust you asked him whether he is Shomer Shabbos . . .

  21. Re: “Shomer shabbos”:
    As part of my very brief exchange with Joel Coen, I blabbed on about my wife being a Cohen, of the Persian Cohen tribe…to which he replied that he wasn’t actually a Cohen (this may be a world-wide scoop here, Mike)…To which I replied, “Ah, a Coen without the essential “H”…. He politley chuckled, wished me well, took the business card I jabbed into his hand, then scaddaddled the hell out of there.

  22. You’ll probably be played by James Gandolfini in their next movie, Yosef . . .

    The Big Halper?! 😉

    The question is . . . who will play “Smiley” and Israela?!

  23. Talking of the Coen brothers next movie. Ample opportunity to fit 2nd hand book shops into this:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jun/28/coen-brothers-folk-scene-dave-van-ronk

  24. i just went to halpers some days ago and was amazed! that is what a book store should be like! as i started writing a blogpost myself about it, i discovered this one, great post and so true.
    here my post
    http://wrappedtroubles.blogspot.com/2011/09/islands-in-time.html

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