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My experience as a consumer has taught me that I have a Midas touch in shops: Everything that the king touched turned into gold, and everything I want or need to buy turns out to be the most expensive item in the store. This happens mostly with books.

Recently I needed a book about the history of punctuation. I could not find it in bookstores in Israel, and Steimatzky won't order one copy of a book for a single interested customer. Therefore, I searched the site of Amazon.com, and found there "Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West," by M.B. Parkes. Without a pause I bought it with one click, and to the effect of $65 (plus air-mail shipment costing $7.98) being deducted from my bank account and transferred to theirs (they have my credit card number and have tapped into my monetary vein many times in the past).

I waited patiently for three weeks and, when notified, went to the post office to collect my parcel. Then I was notified that I had to pay NIS 51 VAT (value-added tax).

I had heard from friends that this is often the case, but for me it was a first. I thus embarked on a mission to find out what happened, and discovered that the crux of the whole matter lies in the fact that VAT has to be paid for books purchased in Israel.

The fact that there is a tax levied on books bought in Israel does not derive from one of the Ten Commandments, nor is it a universal phenomenon. Local publishers have appealed to various prime ministers to get the VAT on books abolished, but in vain.

It seems there are countries where there is no VAT on books (England, for one); there are countries where the VAT on books is lower than in Israel (Netherlands, 10 percent); and there are countries where VAT on books in much higher (Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria, 25 percent). In the U.S., there is no VAT, but instead, a sales tax that varies from state to state.

The purchase of books via Amazon enabled all sides to circumvent the tax authorities. For the Israeli book-lover, a purchase via Amazon (which offers a much wider selection of foreign books than any local shop) was also much cheaper. The invoice was stuck into the parcel, the parcel was delivered, and none was the wiser in regard to the buyer enjoying a VAT exemption of sorts. The sorting clerks at the post office would open book parcels at random, according to size, and would levy VAT on books in those that were opened. It was a time-consuming process.

In comparison, a foreign book purchased at Steimatzky (and there are many titles they do not import) will cost you the catalog price, converted to Israeli currency at a rate that is 50 percent higher then the usual daily rate of exchange (which is supposed to cover the expenses of import, mail, VAT, etc. incurred by Steimatzky).

Such tax loopholes were, apparently, temporary. The director of customs and VAT, Motti Ayalon, visited the sorting facilities of Israel Postal Authority, and saw that the workers were opening parcels, trying to determine whether the books inside should be taxed. He approached Amazon, and got the company's agreement to print the value of the purchase on the parcel, bar-coded. From now on, every parcel containing books (or goods) exceeding the value of $35 (postage and shipment expenses included) is subject to VAT.

Amazon hastened to assure me that my privacy has not been infringed upon, and that the company is simply complying with tax regulations and laws. On the parcel, they print information about the value of the goods only - not about the content. Thus, I can buy pornographic literature to my heart's content, and no mail clerk will ever know it - as long as I pay VAT.

For their part, Israeli tax authorities promise not to use the information they get from Amazon for any purposes other than taxation. And the parcels won't get stuck in the mail any longer than necessary.

In the past, Amazon clients would calculate the accumulated price of the books purchased, plus the shipment and postage expenses, and would order several books in one go in order to lower the total cost. From now on, they should avoid ordering books whose value-added price and shipment expenses exceed $35 (NIS 147 at the time of writing). Mr. Ayalon noted, incidentally, that this limit per shipment may be raised in the future.

Now, coming back to the book I ordered (typography, not pornography): Had I ordered it via one of the local book shops, it would have cost me about $100 (NIS 420); its time of arrival would be for me to guess and for them to find out, or the other way around. Now, even with VAT, and after hunting the Amazon, my Midas touch still enabled me to get off more cheaply: The book cost me NIS 357 NIS, and I got it in three weeks flat.