Desperation Foils the Lockdown: Israeli Stores Back in Business Before the All Clear Sounds

In Tel Aviv suburb Holon, stores' blinds are halfway up, or they’ll deliver goods to a nearby bench. Shop owners say the coronavirus is finishing off what the malls started

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A "for rent" sign on a store in Holon, November 2020.
A "for rent" sign on a store in Holon, November 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The stores on city streets were still supposed to remain closed, but on Sokolov Street in Holon a quiet rebellion was underway. In the middle of this week, even before the coronavirus cabinet decided to let these shops open, some had already opened up. At others, the blinds were halfway up, or a piece of furniture blocked the entrance.

A short tour in this Tel Aviv suburb revealed that every owner had his or her own trick, like deliveries to the street corner, or take-away service for clothes. Confused customers approached with suspicion, worrying they might lure the store owner into committing a crime.

In the end, the new status quo seemed good for everyone. At one store, the owner opened the door for a customer, checked right and left, and locked the door behind her. Another five customers were already inside, and two employees. At least they were keeping to the rules about no more than 10 people at a gathering.

Some said the city inspectors were turning a blind eye, while others said the inspectors didn’t have a clue. Either way, the storekeepers weren’t waiting for a cabinet decision.

“People are opening their businesses, and those who keep to the law are getting screwed,” said a clothing store owner. He was sitting on the floor at the entrance to the shop and smoking a cigarette. A chair stood in the doorway, separating him from passersby.

Every few minutes a potential customer peeked inside. He was there to tell the customers they could buy from outside.

“Why clothing stores are closed, I just can’t understand this absurdity,” said an older woman who came to buy jeans for her husband.

As the store owner put it, “People have pity on me, ask why I don’t let people inside. During the first lockdown we made it through with grants and loans, but the second lockdown lasted too long and hurt us during the holidays – I’m desperate.”

A store open for business toward the end of the second coronavirus lockdown, Holon, November 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Light rail woes

All told, Sokolov Street has 354 storefront properties. Of these, the 61 clothing stores stand out. These aren’t trendy boutiques that import luxury brands, but purveyors of reasonably priced wares for everyone. The barber shops and beauty salons also stand out – all 37 of them. This week, as the restrictions were eased, the lines went out the door.

Another 33 shops are up for rent, a little less than 10 percent. The old-timers among the store owners say the coronavirus may have sped up the abandonment of the street, but the real blame belongs to the work on the planned light rail and the decline of the old main street. The excavations for the train are scheduled to begin next year, and at some point the neglected street is set to become a pedestrian mall.

“Every city has a street that’s its showcase, but this one doesn’t look good,” said Eliyahu, the owner of a clothing store on the thoroughfare for 30 years. “Even the trees here don’t look right.”

Eliyahu says the mayor doesn’t hear the shop owners’ distress. He won’t listen and doesn’t talk to them, just “once every four years before the election he listens to us and disappears. Even before the lockdown it was tough, but now it’s much harder. We asked them to put in parking meters; the cars on the street don’t turn over. But city hall doesn’t care, it wants everybody to go to the malls.”

A Holon street. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Nissan, who opened his hair salon 15 years ago, tried to explain the horrible situation. “This street was damaged when they began to plan the light rail,” he said. “People heard what happened in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and a lot of them didn’t want to renew their contracts. After that came the coronavirus and finished the story off.”

Adi Rubin, also a hairdresser, has been on Sokolov for a few years. Like Nissan, he believes that the mass abandonment reflects the fear of the light rail.

“The moment the light rail issue came up, people began disappearing. Anyone who was renting began to leave, and the coronavirus closed the lid of the grave on everyone who was left,” he said.

“I assume the city wants to wait until after the work ends, but for now there’s no light rail and no development – and that’s how it will stay for a few more years. For decades no one did anything to Sokolov and it was the street of the city.”

Do the sewing at home

Alona Vermnich, the owner of a store for bridal and evening gowns, closed permanently this week. Vermnich, a divorced mother of a first-grade girl, opened her shop just two years ago, but for months all celebrations and parties have been canceled. Nobody needs a snazzy dress.

“I’ve barely worked this year. The coronavirus started and we were closed for two months in the first lockdown,” she said.

“Now they closed us again – a month without any possibility of receiving a customer, and if one did come in I’d be fined 5,000 shekels [$1,480]. My lease ran out this month and I can’t see any reason to continue paying rent without any income and without knowing when they’ll open the stores, or events.”

Stores for rent in the city.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Soon before her lease ended, she asked her landlord to give her a break on the rent. “He lowered it by 200 shekels. How will that help me?”

She packed everything up and now works from home; all that’s left in the store are mannequins. Vermnich notes that even when clothing stores are allowed to open, it’s not clear when weddings will come back in force.

“My customers are in uncertainty,” she said. “They call and say they still don’t have a final date for the event and don’t even know how many people they’re inviting and what dresses to start to sew – whether modest and inexpensive or fancy and expensive. And all of them are loath to go for the second option.”

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