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I showed up for a meeting with Iris Barel, the CEO of Steimatzky, with a basket full of prejudices and criticism. In my mind, the country's largest bookstore chain, whose former owner and president, Eri Steimazky, recently retired, has always been a "cultural bully" - a profit-driven bookselling enterprise with no respect for books. This was obvious to me from the commercialized window displays with no literary priorities in evidence; from the bookshelves and counters with their very limited selection of books and narrow approach to literary output; from the sense of impatience imparted by the design of the stores, which rarely invites customers to sit down, browse and read, but rather promotes quick purchases and discourages lingering.

All my life, I have stayed away from Steimatzky, preferring to spend my money in small, private, local shops that are struggling to survive, but set high standards for sales clerks, personal service and distinctive literary taste that goes beyond economic considerations.

Barel, 53, a long-time resident of Ramat Gan, gave me a solid handshake in her large, no-frills office above the chain's huge warehouse in the Bnei Brak industrial zone. The room was almost empty of books, but Barel, who hails from the insurance world, says that as someone who has been managing the veteran chain since August 2006, she believes that a love of books is a prerequisite for success.

You once said that someone who can sell insurance can sell anything. But isn't there still an essential difference between books and other products?

Barel: "To sell books, you need a soul. You need to love books. No question about it. Steimatzky's salespeople wear a tag that says 'People of the book.' You need love and you need knowledge. It's not enough to know how to sell. I read that Avi Shomer [managing director of the competing chain, Tzomet Sfarim] says there is no difference between selling books and selling tomatoes. I disagree."

So what is the real difference between Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim, apart from size? [Steimatzky has 150 branches and Tzomet Sfarim has 40.]

"I don't like making comparisons, but if you insist, then I would say expertise and professionalism. We regard ourselves as a cultural enterprise. Steimatzky is a Zionist company - seriously. I grew up in a Zionist home: My father served in the Palmach and I see myself as a Zionist, even if that doesn't sound trendy nowadays. That's why we open branches in outlying cities, even if it's not really profitable, and that's why we stock books in our stores from all the country's publishers."

Haaretz recently reported that your partnership with Keter Publishing [which goes back to 2005, when Steimatzky acquired 48 percent of the company] has hit a snag and you are thinking of dissolving it?

"Let me put it this way: We've had some professional disagreements, which I hope we can work out."

If the dispute is not resolved, Steimatzky and Keter might split amicably. Barel does not appear to see this as a catastrophe. After a year and a half on the job, she seems reasonably confident and sure of herself: "Over the past year, we have grown by over 10 percent - knock on wood. We've launched special campaigns with cell phone and food companies," Barel says proudly.

In speaking about her company, she waxes positively emotional. "It's fun to be here," she says in English. "We laugh, we hang out, we hug each other." She describes the moment she "fell in love with Steimatzky." It happened some time around April. "I came to this company from a totally different world," she explains. "I didn't know anything. People are afraid when a new CEO steps in, but they forget that managers also have fears. The people who work for Steimatzky are very high caliber. Titles mean nothing to them if you're not a human being, if you're not an enlightened, cultured person. In their eyes, coming from the insurance world was not a great plus, to put it mildly.

"Around Passover, the warehouse was jam-packed with stock: 250,000 books had to be distributed to the stores virtually overnight. I called in all the warehouse workers and we discussed the logistics of the operation. The next day, I showed up at 6 A.M. in jeans and an old shirt, rolled up my sleeves and got to work, lugging and sorting. I have a brother who is seven years older than me, and we used to beat each other up when we were kids, so I'm pretty strong. Anyway, I worked at the warehouse every day for 12 days straight. Soon other department heads were pitching in, and we had a great team effort going. All of a sudden, people got to know one another. All of a sudden, the manager got to know the people who work in the storeroom. That was the moment I felt I had a company."

When Barel talks about her love for her work and her employees, it is easy to believe her. She exudes warmth, speaks candidly and has generous praise for the people who work under her. About the sales staff, she says: "A CEO can be replaced, but there's no replacement for an educated and attentive saleswoman who has read a lot, knows how to make recommendations, and is dedicated to her job."

She says the average age of the (predominantly female) sales staff is 36, and most of them have worked for Steimatzky for 6 or 7 years - that is, the turnover is low, which is generally indicative of decent working conditions. Barel does not reveal how much salespeople are paid, but notes that outstanding achievement is rewarded with bonuses and overseas trips. The base salary, according to an employee at the Steimatzky branch on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, is NIS 24 an hour, with shifts of six-and-a-half hours a day. "Could be worse," he sums up. At a mall branch, workers reported similar conditions. There are definitely worse places to work, though an educated bookseller should be better rewarded.

Barel has "very high regard" for Yona Galil, a deputy sales manager who has been with Steimatzky for 20 years. She is a real gift to the company and a true "woman of the book," as Barel puts it. She really "loves" Steimatzky's house designer, and "totally adores" the people who work in the storeroom. This style of speech is not only a reflection of her personality, but of her managerial upbringing. Asked to name her favorite books, she says: "Most of all, I like professional literature: books on management. The book that changed my life is 'Only the Paranoid Survive,' by Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel. It's my daily guide. If you ask my employees, they'll tell you it's my bible." Other favorites are "The Welch Way," by Jack Welch, and "Blue Ocean Strategy," by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, which has the subtitle "How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant."

Are Steimatzky's efforts to open branches all over the country, no matter how small, related to this desire to create an uncontested market?

"Not at all. I've made a promise never to open a Steimatzky branch next door to a private bookseller, as far as it's possible. I believe in the importance of private establishments. I think being able to go into a place where the salesperson knows you and what you like to read is enormously important."

Nevertheless

In two realms, Steimatzky does not hold up well under comparison. One is in comparison to private bookstores. As part of a chain, it is less friendly by definition. On the other hand, it is not comparable to large chains in other countries, like Barnes & Noble in the United States, where stores are intimidating in size, but also offer a very wide range of books. Large chains like Barnes & Noble have flagship stores in major cities where one can find a huge assortment of books in the less popular genres. They have large departments for poetry and classics, for instance, which are usually missing from Steimatzky.

"You can't compare Steimatzky to Barnes & Noble," says Barel. "The number of Hebrew readers is very small. But you are right about the flagship stores, and if you go into our new branch at the Grand Canyon mall in Haifa, which has 450 square meters of floor space, you will find almost any title you're looking for. We are opening this kind of store in Jerusalem, and looking for a good spot in Tel Aviv."

Most branches have a very limited selection of books.

"The small branches are limited on account of their size and the kind of store they are. But we're in the process of setting up a service center so people can walk into a Steimatzky store and order any book they want, published in Israel or abroad, and we'll get it for them, even if it's not on the shelf or in our warehouse. I hope the system will be operative by the beginning of 2008."

In the meantime, she says, statistics are being compiled on customer requests.

"Since October 8, 5,076 customers have walked out of Steimatzky without the book they wanted, but we got it to them soon after. Another 1,605 requests are still being processed."

Despite the marketing ethos from which Barel sprang, or perhaps because of it, the chain is slowly assuming a more "literary" character. For example, "all our new stores are being designed to include seating areas where people can sit comfortably and look through books. I want customers to feel that we're making an effort for them, and I want to turn the book-buying experience into something more personal and intimate."

Asked about the display windows, which do not reflect the choice of the store manager but rather focus on a specific publisher or even title, Barel explains: "We are looking into the possibility of ending this practice of selling the display space to publishers, both to promote equal opportunity and to rebrand Steimatzky."

So what do you say about the claim that Steimatzky keeps only best-sellers in stock and has no space for books of quality?

"Steimatzky sells more poetry books than any other chain. It's true that traditionally, branch managers have had certain sale standards they've been expected to maintain. A book lying around for four or five months is considered 'dead stock,' and removed from the store. So the only books that stay are the ones that do well. But in talks with our branch managers, we've heard them say, 'This is not a grocery.' Some have specifically told me: 'I don't want to run a store that has no philosophy books, or a store that has no poetry.' In the wake of these meetings, we have introduced a 'protection' system for 10 genres.

"For example, even if a store hasn't sold a single philosophy book in the previous year, there will still be two or three philosophy titles in stock. When I came to Steimatzky, all the stores received the same merchandise, as if they were all alike. But last year, I personally met with all 150 branch managers, most of whom are women. I told each one of them: 'You have a sales target. Best sellers need to be promoted. But apart from that, the store is yours and the clientele is yours. If you want more poetry, go ahead. If you want more books on Jewish themes, it's up to you. As long as you meet the sales quotas, you can run the store however you see fit."