There are enough English- language books available in Israel to keep all types of literature snobs and novel addicts happy. Even shops selling primarily Hebrew-language content have at least a few dozen English books in stock, but finding a quality title in Israel often means digging through piles of throwaways first.
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem each have at least four or five decent secondhand English bookshops - meaning decently priced and decently stocked. The bigger and better known shops have a fair share of tourists among their clientele, while others cater more to local readers. While the selection of stores outside of city hubs is more limited, there are a few book clubs and online stores with English content around the country.
The used book scene in Tel Aviv is like much of that city's culture - underground and spread out. There are more than a handful of shops selling books in every language in the Carmel Market area, on an unofficial corridor along King George and Allenby Streets, and a few others sporadically dotting the city.
Halpers, nestled in the center of the corridor at 87 Allenby, carries one of Israel's widest selections of used English books, and certainly the biggest in Tel Aviv. New Jersey-born Yossi Halper opened the store just after the 1991 Gulf War, with a collection of some 10,000 books sent over from the United States.
"I was going to open beforehand, but missiles were falling on Allenby," he says. In the last 15 years, he's managed to boost his selection to about 50,000 books, more than half in English, and thousands of others in Hebrew, German, French, Spanish and Yiddish.
His plan was to open a dual-language bookstore, but he has come into his own in the last decade as a leading source for English books in Israel, with customers coming from as far as Eilat and Nahariya to browse. Stacked to the ceiling, his collection spills into four rooms, a courtyard, and two extra storage spaces; it is impressively stocked with science fiction, general fiction, fantasy, biographies, detective novels, best-sellers and rare finds.
While taste is vast, Halper says, it's easy to know what sells in Israel. "You develop a nose for it. There are authors that are always hot, that are always requested ... If you're doing it enough years, you know what you're doing, and if you have the books, people will come."
Halper's prices range from NIS 10-20 "depending on demand, on the condition of the book and on how much I can sell it for," though beat-up copies of requested classics like Catch 22, he says, can always sell at the higher end. Halper also keeps a selection of rare relics and books, some over a hundred years old, in different languages, including English, German and Latin, piled on shelves behind the desk. Those, he says, go for about NIS 300.
"I try to keep my prices reasonable. The fact that I'm in business 15 years speaks for itself - I don't get complaints about my prices."
Halper says he chose his Allenby location "because it was the cheapest rent I could find." Its unassuming spot in an alley off the bustling street brings in an eclectic clientele, as does word of mouth. He tracks down new books from a mix of patrons. "Sometimes they're bums, sometimes they're wearing a three-piece suit. You don't know who's going to have books."
Rare finds and coffee
Farther up on the corridor, on King George, is the Little Prince, recognizable by its rack of discount books out front. In the last six years, the store has managed to stock itself with one of the best selections of Hebrew-language books in the city, including rare finds like a compilation of original Marc Chagall sketches, autographed books by S.Y. Agnon and pamphlets and catalogs from 1930s Tel Aviv.
The Little Prince is appropriately named: Its English selection is small in quantity, but robust in imagination. Owner Naim Cohen says, "We don't accept every book, only the good ones, things you can only get in English, and esoteric subjects."
When the Little Prince grew too big for its King George location, Cohen decided to open a supplemental branch a block and a half away, on Simtat Plonit. The initial plan - to create a cafe in the second store - only came to fruition about a month ago. "We are always in the building phase, finding our potential," he says, adding that he wants to keep the cafe open 24 hours as soon as business allows. Meanwhile, Cohen has managed to straddle a strategic block located at Tel Aviv's core with his two stores. Customers are free to come in to both stores and drink coffee and read for hours without interruption. "We never kick anyone out," says Cohen. "There's no other place like this in Israel."
The Little Prince chooses all of its books, both Hebrew and English, based on "rarity and demand," and prices its merchandise accordingly. The English section, set in two small rooms at the back of the store, comprises only a few hundred titles, but each is a classic and a valuable find. "I'll usually only buy books by authors I've heard of before, but sometimes if I see a book I've never seen before in my life, I'll know if it's good," Cohen explains.
English books at the Little Prince range from NIS 16-NIS 45 - slightly more than the average price for Hebrew books and more than the going rate for used English books. "This isn't America," Cohen says, pointing out that limited availability means higher prices.
Another used bookstore in Tel Aviv worth mentioning is Book Boutique, uptown on Dizengoff Street. Book Boutique acts more as lending library than store, letting customers return their books at half price or in exchange for others. A sign on the front window reads: "Customers wanted. No experience necessary. Apply inside."
"It's a comfortable business, not very nerve-wracking," says owner Moshe Kowal. "People who buy books to keep, that's another story. Here, people buy books to return ... I try to make the store as user-friendly, or I guess as reader-friendly, as possible."
Kowal has owned Book Boutique since 1973, when his wife handed it over to him. He has some 30,000 books, mostly what he calls "pleasure reading" - many lowbrow novels and other works of classic fiction.
Kowal says he doesn't see many tourists, and in general has noticed a downward spiral in sales over the last few years: "People are reading a lot less these days. My average customer reads maybe a fifth of what he would have read 20 years ago."
While he has been able to keep the store thriving, Kowal explains, technology is taking over business. "The nature of the used book business will change in the next generation ... I hope whoever takes over here will know how to use the computer."
Up north, online
Beverly Berger, the owner of Beverly's Books, agrees. She moved her store online six years ago after a 20-year stint in the Hadar section of Haifa where, she says, "I was kind of like the bartender, who can listen to everything you say and not be in your life."
The decision to move was motivated mainly by the "dramatic changes" in the neighborhood, and the feeling that "my customers didn't want to come down to Hadar anymore." Rather than finding new premises, she decided to go online.
"Moving a bookstore is one of the heaviest and most tedious moving jobs," she notes. "I decided instead of moving to a different location, it was time to keep up with the times and 'go Amazon.'"
While the volume of sales hasn't really changed, Berger misses the feeling of the shop and dealing with her regular customers. "It's a totally different business," she says. "You don't have the face-to-face meeting with the people, or the conversation and the chatting. I'm not the bartender anymore. Now I sit in front of my computer, who doesn't talk to me."
Berger has about 9,000 to 10,000 books, supplied by various dealers in Canada and the United States, which she keeps in a warehouse. The Web site is easy to use and the entire shopping process is done online. She lists every stocked book along with a blurb, a rating of the book's condition and often a picture of the cover - and also gives some of her own recommendations, at customers' requests. "I try to offer as much information as I can in light of the fact that you're not actually browsing," she says.
Berger has a solid selection of science fiction, general fiction and eclectic genres, and she underwrites the shipping costs for purchases of three or more books.
"I think the Israeli public is ready for this kind of shopping," she says, adding, "but sometimes Israelis are a bit hesitant about putting in a credit card [online]."
The Jerusalem book world, like in Tel Aviv, has its share of tourist magnets and neighborhood shops. Book Mark, located in the heart of the gentrified Baka neighborhood, has about 15,000 to 20,000 titles, mostly in English with selections in Hebrew and French as well. Owner and manager Sara Landau buys some books from customers and occasionally finds "orphans" on her front doorstep, in the form of a package or two of books without a name or telephone number. At Book Mark, the most popular selections are children's books, thriller/mysteries, and anything that appears on Oprah Winfrey's book club list.
"In this neighborhood, there are lawyers, doctors, psychologists," Landau explains. "These are sophisticated professionals, who work very hard all day long and at the end of the day or the week, they are looking for junk books because they don't want anything serious."
The reward for selling English- language books in Israel, she says, usually goes beyond the level of profitability, which can often be a challenge.
Landau: "It's profitable by the skin of your teeth. But I love books - it's under my skin and in my blood. If someone wants to go into book selling for profit, they should have a wealthy uncle or a stash of money. During the intifada, I read tons and tons of books because I didn't have any customers."
Customers, she continues, are all ages, and during the summer "kids who are 7 or 8 years old come to the store clutching an NIS 20 bill because their grandma said, 'Go downstairs and get out of my hair.' It starts at that age and goes all the way up because there are a lot of old-age homes in the area."
If someone wants to sell books to Book Mark, Landau says they must bring in a title that she doesn't already have on her shelves, and that future customers may be willing to buy.
Mofet, Yalkut and Book Store, all located in the downtown area, are a mainstay of Jerusalem's used book scene. The three stores, owned by Moti Blum, carry a wide selection of Hebrew and English titles, and sell books in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch as well. The selection is vast and well priced, and though Blum has more nonfiction in stock, he says fiction sells better. He also has a large variety of rare books, most of which he does not keep stocked in the stores.
Because the books - which he counts at more than 50,000 - are spread over three stores, customers looking for a specific title can phone one store and leave a call-back number, while Blum's staff tracks down its location. On any given day, he can have up to 2,000 orders from clients around the country. Blum also keeps some titles in storage, so customers who don't see what they are looking for are encouraged to leave a name and number.
The landmark Jerusalem used bookstore, Sefer Ve Sefel, is probably the city's best known - and with good reason: Spread over two stories, its selection is wide and neatly laid out, with helpful service and moderate prices. The books on the outside are highly discounted, with some real bargains for just NIS 10. Sefer Ve Sefel sells some new books, but the vast majority is used - and all are in English.
"'The Lonely Planet' guide calls Sefer Ve Sefel the best used English-language book shop in the Middle East and I would agree," says long-time owner Uri Ruchan, who has managed the store for 22 years. "We have a huge selection of new used books because many of our customers buy books on the Internet or bring them to us from abroad."
The family-run bookstore Dani Books, on Even Israel Street in the city center, was established in 1956 and has a wide variety of contemporary used books in English and Hebrew, with small selections in other languages, including Spanish and French, as well. Customers who buy books at Dani and then return them also get 60 percent of the value back, which is relatively high rate compared to some of the other stores. The shop always has a bargain of some kind, and this month, customers who buy two books get a third free.
"We sell best-sellers, literature and fiction, but not Danielle Steele," Dani's son, Yisrael Daniel, said referring to the best-selling author of romance novels.
The shop first opened in an apartment complex on King George Street in 1956. In 1973, Dani moved to the current location on 57 Jaffa Street, which now features mostly Hebrew titles. The additional location on Even Israel, which carries mostly English books, opened its doors in 2004.
Good prices, good causes
The English Speakers Residents Association (ESRA), the Herzliya-based nonprofit Anglo-immigrant absorption group, runs a secondhand bookshop in Ra'anana and facilitates book clubs around the country, attracting readers both in and outside of the big cities.
The shop, which operates as an exchange, accepts donations of used books and sells them at low prices. Started 29 years ago by Merle Guttman, the shop has a friendly and helpful volunteer staff and a great selection of books, including fiction, history, politics, travel and thrillers - its particular best-sellers.
ESRA's book clubs, based in Tel Aviv, Kfar Sava, Ezorei Chen and Rehovot, provide English speakers with a forum for freshening up their libraries and periodically talking about literature over coffee. Prices are low, ranging from NIS 7 for recently published paperbacks and NIS 12-15 for hard covers. Bargain books can go for even less.
All proceeds go to ESRA's special projects, which include providing food for the hungry and a welfare crisis-intervention program. The ESRA Community Fund operates dozens of educational and welfare programs to help disadvantaged families, disabled people and immigrants from distressed (non-English-speaking) countries.
Navigating through the secondhand book world in Israel can often be trying, but there is a prolific selection available. Most shop owners will direct customers to other stores if they don't carry a particular title and some will place special orders on request. Indeed, scanning the map of English bookstores around the country can be almost as fun as perusing the shelves.
Where and when to buy books
87 Allenby Street
Open Sunday to Thursday 9 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 9 A.M.-3 P.M.
Wide selection of nearly every genre, particularly fiction and science fiction and nonfiction. NIS 10-20 for most books.
20 King George
Open Sunday to Thursday 10 A.M.-8 P.M.; Fridays 10 A.M.-5 P.M.
Cafe open from 10 A.M. until the last customer leaves.
Prices are very high for a quality selection of titles, especially in art and fiction. Hebrew selection is much fuller, and there is a discount rack out front. The cafe gives the store a very pleasant neighborhood feel. NIS 16-45 for most books.
Open Sunday to Thursday 10 A.M.-2 P.M., and 4:15-7 P.M.; Fridays 10 A.M.-2 P.M.
Good selection of romance novels and modern epics. Half-priced books stacked out front. Offers exchange opportunities. NIS 10-20.
Open Sunday to Thursday 10 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 9 A.M.-3 P.M.
Decent fiction selection, but the store is not always open during the hours listed.
1 Esther Hamalka Street
Corner 33 Bethlehem Road
Open Sunday to Thursday, 10:30 A.M.-6:30; Fridays 10 A.M.-1 P.M.
Service and selection are good, but prices are a bit higher than other stores. There is a box of discount books in the front. The store carries a wide range of subjects, including some rare books, most of which are in Hebrew.
Ki'ach Street (Clal Building)
Sunday to Thursday 8:30 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 8 A.M.-2:30 P.M.
97 Jaffa Street (Clal building)
Sunday to Thursday 8:30 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 8 A.M.-2:30 P.M.
8 Aliash Street
Sunday to Thursday 8:30 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 8 A.M.-2:30 P.M.
All owned by Moti Blum, these three stores have a wide a selection of Hebrew and English titles, with selections in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch as well. Reasonably priced.
2 Yavetz Street
Sunday to Thursday 9 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 8 A.M.-2 P.M.
Wide and neatly laid out selection, considered a landmark shop in Israel. Books outside are highly discounted, with some real bargains for just NIS 10.
8 Yoel Solomon Street
Open daily 10 A.M.-11 P.M.
Small shop, in Nahalat Shiva, just off the city's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, geared mostly to tourists. There are a wide variety of Israeli authors in translation, plus the store is open until late.
3 Even Israel Street (corner of 57 Jaffa Road)
Open Sunday to Thursday 9 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fridays 8:30 A.M.-2 P.M.
Wide variety of contemporary used books in English and Hebrew, with small selections in other languages, including Spanish and French. The shop always has a bargain of some kind, and this month, customers who buy two books get a third free.
5 Klausner St. (in Beit Fisher)
Open Sunday to Friday 9:30 A.M.-1 P.M.
* Tel Aviv: Gil 03-7320194
* Kfar Sava: Meets monthly / Ziona 09-7675445
* Rehovot: Meets 2nd Tuesday of every month / Rosalie 08-9494851
* Ezorei Chen: Read as much as you want for NIS 30 a month, and share your thoughts over coffee and cake; meets Mondays at 8 P.M. / Janice 03-6055861
Online bookshop carrying all genres of English language literature, including science fiction, general fiction, art, comics, horror and crime. NIS 15-30
Oren Kessler contributed to this article.
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