When You Can't Bet the Ranch, Open a Small Business

Facing a blustery economy, Tel Aviv's artists and professionals are picking up a surprising side gig: the mom-and-pop shop, cafe or business.

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When the going gets tough, the arts get going.

That, at least, is the surprising logic that pops up in times of recession: When economic crises hit, entrepreneurial spirit reigns. As a result, the ever-embattled arts often get a surprising boost.

Take Tel Aviv, circa now. Some of the brightest figures from its humanities, music and art scene, as well as the leaders of last summer's sweeping social justice protests, are investing in new small business in a bid to stay both creative and profitable during the downturn.

Artist Itamar Raz opened Pushpin Bar in Tel Aviv's trendy Florentin district. Yigal Rambam and other figures from the social-justice movement put their money where their cooperative mouths were and opened Bar Kayma, a co-op watering hole. Musician Rafi Perski opened a dim sum stand. Feminist activist and culture researcher Ortal Ben Dayan launched a second-hand clothing store. Social activist Alon-Lee Green and his brother Ilai took over their father’s bookstore, and director and author Ido Angel opened the Misantrope, a sort of pay-as-you-go workspace for writers and artists who are tired of the coffee shop scene.

A master's degree doesn't matter

So what is the connection between entrepreneurship and the arts, and what does all this have to do with the economy?

“I was on the brink of deciding to go back to Kiryat Shmona,” says Ben Dayan, the researcher, referring to the northern Israeli town that is a world removed from Tel Aviv. “I definitely never thought I’d open a business. I have zero management skills and am terrible at navigating bureaucracy. But I was just so fed up with being a freelancer and never having steady work. I can't even remember what a pay stub looks like."

She may have a master's degree, but that fancy piece of paper wasn't paying the bills. "I was really having trouble making ends meet, wondering how I would make rent and pay my bills," she says. The social justice movement, she says, made her realize it was okay to be honest about her economic situation.

"Before the protests I was ashamed to talk about it, but since then, it's something people talk about more," she says. "It's not just me. My friends are saying the same thing – we work at a high socio level but a low economic level. You can have an intellectual job that requires a ton of professional training and skills, but still make less money than you would waiting tables."

Balancing the bookstore's books

The Green brothers love their community and wanted to give back, so when they decided to convert their father's old bookstore near Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv, it seemed fit to make it into a neighborhood and community business. They call their shop "Ha'Achim Green" – the Green brothers.

It was about neighbors, not numbers. Neither brother has a connection to the business world, and they both admit that learning how to balance the books, so to speak, has been difficult. But the store gives them some security.

It's difficult to be a student or an artist in Tel Aviv, and the brothers say they were encouraged to create the bookstore by their father, who wanted to give them a safety net. They came into the project without starting capital but with a great deal of support, and thanks to friends who volunteer their time and social media campaigns that get the word out, they have found free publicity, as well as painters, organizers and handymen who show up and offer their services for free.

Trying to play the business game

A teacher, a law student and a graphic designer walk into a bar. What happens next? Well, if you're Imri Kalmann, Ran Leabel and Yael Gal, you create the Shpagat, a notorious gay hot spot that is so sizzling among Tel Aviv's queer and fabulous that you should probably wear protection.

The trio, all close friends, came into the venture with zilch in terms of experience. Looking back, they admit that they didn't know what they were getting themselves into.

"To tell the truth, I wouldn’t do it again," says Kalmann. "Now that I know more about running a business, I think it’s crazy to open a place of this size without financial support and advice.”

So how did he end up in the deep end without a single swimming lesson? It's the economy, stupid. "We feel like there's no future," he says. "It's very hard to imagine a financial future and prepare for it. Still, there's something oddly liberation about this kind of feeling, a kind of 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,' kind of feeling."

And at least they had time on their side. "We don’t have families, children, risks or a mortgage, so we can play this business game," he says.

Misantrope's owner is no misanthrope

Angel, who opened his café-cum-workspace two years ago, was motivated by necessity.

“I needed a quiet place away from home where I could write, and I didn’t have one,” he says. “I wanted to keep writing intensively and make a living at the same time.”

In the space, writers and artists of all walks are welcome. Customers are encouraged not to talk in order to foster a quiet work atmosphere.

Like his fellow shopkeeps and newbie entrepreneurs from the arts community, Angel has no background in business. What he has, however, is passion.

"I went to a consulting firm before I started out, and they told me I would be making a mistake and wasting hundreds of thousands of shekels," he says. "But it's no secret that you can't make a living from writing and directing. A lot of the people who come from those fields find another way to support themselves so they can stay creative."

At Misantrope, Angel says, he has the ideal balance. Fellow scrappy artists are invited to come join him.

"I combine my writing and art in my work, and I get paid for it," he says. "I want to write and support myself at the same time, and others are welcome to come do it with me."

With their new shop, the Green brothers hope to stay in the black.Credit: Yoram Ronen
That's the way the dumpling crumbles: Perski at Dim Sum 33.Credit: Yifat Yogev

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