Forget Paris: A Stroll Through Tel Aviv’s Best Secondhand Bookstores

One small stretch of Allenby Street boasts many secondhand bookstores, thousands of yellowing novels and millions of memories

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Halper's books in Tel Aviv. 'This place is a splendid hidden treasure'
Halper's books in Tel Aviv. 'This place is a splendid hidden treasure' Credit: Dan Keinan
Avraham Balaban
Avraham Balaban

Yes! At the Bookworm (Tola’at Sefarim) bookstore-café on Maze Street, I find a book I once had but then lost: The thrilling love letters of Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet.

On the way home, I decide to turn left on Allenby – one of the few streets in Tel Aviv I really knew when I was young. Back then, the Sifri bookstore was at one end of the street and I would visit it every time I had to come to Tel Aviv for dental treatment.

At the Bookworm (Tola’at Sefarim) bookstore-café.Credit: Tali Mayer

Sundown comes early these days and Allenby is very dark, illuminated mainly by the lights of the jewelry shops. Some of these shops are still open, others are closed and shuttered. As I near Montefiore Street, a small shop window announces Halper’s Books.

Halper’s Books? I takes me a moment to recall that this shop was mentioned in a recent edition of Time Out Tel Aviv, as a small store that still preserves the love of books.

I step inside to discover that it’s larger than I suspected: Four rooms, packed mainly with English books, including many about American history and culture. The owner is busy with some customers and I continue on my way.

The sci-fi section at Kidmat Eden. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Further down Allenby, after Montefiore, the urban landscape changes. In place of jewelry stores there are places that feed both the body and soul: coffeehouses and fast-food joints, and bookstores.

It’s hard to believe, but on this one small stretch between Montefiore and Ahad Ha’am, there are four bookstores: Kidmat Eden, Isradon (for Russian books), Lotus and Lev Hasefer. At the latter I’m the only one in the store.

As I wander amid the aisles, it takes me back to my kibbutz youth. Ah, what a pleasure that was: To go to the reading room next to the library late at night, far from the cramped children’s home, far from the arguments of the dining hall, and to turn on the lamp over the armchair; to imagine that I was in some forgotten attic in Paris, curled up with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Ditte, Child of Man,” or with Romain Rolland’s “Jean-Christophe” or “The Enchanted Soul.”

The books prices at Halper's Books are marked by letters.Credit: Dan Keinan

How desperately our parents wanted us to continue on the same kibbutz path as them. They didn’t realize the door leading into the kibbutz library was our gateway out of there.

One day, a study will be written about the role kibbutz libraries of the 20th century played in shaping the gentle socialist souls of the people who lived on our kibbutzim.

The cleavage effect

The veteran bookseller, seeing me leaf through the fine old novel “How Green was my Valley,” tells me he wrote a paper on it when he was in ninth grade and still remembers its closing lines by heart. I turn to the book’s last page and he closes his eyes and quotes it word for word.

Lotus Books. Secondhand books, as well as new books at reduced prices.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

On one shelf I spot a very old copy of the romance novel “Désirée” by Annemarie Selinko, and tell the bookseller about its opening lines. He takes the thick book, opens it to the first page and nods.

I read those lines more than half a century ago. I think I still remember them because as a boy in 10th grade, I couldn’t figure out why someone would start a serious historical novel with such nonsense as what kind of effect a woman’s large cleavage has on men. What did I know then about what makes the world go around?

Now that we’re old buddies, I ask the bookseller, “How’s it going?” He nods to the long line outside the business across the street (a kebab and hotdog stand) and smiles. “That’s where it’s going.”

Amir Hen, owner of the nearby Lotus bookstore, agrees that there’s no commercial future in books. Lotus is a family business that was established in the mid-20th century. Amir says he has a lot of regular customers who keep returning, but, no, he wouldn’t want any of his three daughters to carry on the tradition.

The store contains a nice mix of old and new books, and you can only wonder what will become of it whenever Amir – who has been in this profession for more than 40 years – decides to retire.

The entrance to Halper's Books. Not exactly Shakespeare & Company, but the place has its charm.Credit: Aviva Ein Gil

I remember how far I still have to go and start heading back. Yosef Halper, whose shop was the first on my journey, has since finished with his customers and politely gestures that I take a seat opposite him.

I ask about this strange mix of jewelry stores and bookstores, food stands and books, bars and books. It’s all history, he explains. Allenby used to be the main street of little Tel Aviv, with publishing houses and grand bookstores. The street may have gone down in the world since those days, but the bookstores remained. And they drew more bookstores to the area. Even Kidmat Eden Books, which has been around for eons, opened a store here four years ago.

Halper was born in New Jersey and came to Israel in the mid-1980s. After his military service he lived in Jerusalem and worked as a gardener, but spent hours upon hours in bookstores. Eventually, he decided to turn his hobby into a profession, and opened his store in Tel Aviv 25 years ago.

He shows me a thick guestbook signed by visitors, going back to the store’s earliest days: Filmmaker Joel Coen (of the famous Coen Brothers); artists Menashe Kadishman and Moshe Gershuni; writer Moshe Ben Shaul (“This place is a splendid hidden treasure. Who could have tossed all of these books? Fortunate is the one who finds them”), and many more.

Halper tells me about many more bookstores on the other side of the street and suggests I check them out too. But I’ve had my fill of books for one evening. Something must be left for tomorrow, too

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