Hebrew Book Week, which runs through June 15, is in full swing, but the open-air book fair that used to feature stands by over a dozen publishers has become a showcase for a single retailer, in many locales. In Rishon Letzion, for example, all of the stalls are sponsored by Steimatzky's. The bookstore chain's logo is ubiquitous, appearing on everything from the signs on the stands to the T-shirts worn by those staffing them. And a quick perusal of the offerings gives the impression that what is for sale are primarily best-sellers. The Rishon Letzion site also has a spot featuring Steimatzky's bestsellers of the year with special discounts for its customer club members. The retailer is one of two major book retailers in the country, the other being Tzomet Sfarim.
Traditionally Hebrew Book Week has been a platform for individual publishers to display their wares and of course such fairs still exist in some locations. The event is sponsored by the Book Publishers Association of Israel, but there are only five major book fairs in the country that are organized in the traditional format with publishers' stands. They are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Holon, Ramat Gan and Kfar Sava. In the heyday of the event, there were 15 such venues.
At the Rishon book fair, one woman looked in vain for a stand for the book publisher Am Oved, and asked a staffer whether she was at the right place. "No. We're Steimatzky's," came the reply, "but we have almost everything."
In addition to Rishon, Steimatzky's is running the entire operation at Hebrew Book Week fairs in Ra'anana, Herzliya, Ramat Hasharon and Be'er Sheva. It also has a monopoly at fairs in smaller communities, at libraries and community centers. At other locales, Tzomet Sfarim is running the whole show. The common denominator is that a public space is being turned over to a single retailer. "In the past five years, as the situation of the industry has deteriorated from an economic standpoint, fewer publishers can participate in the fairs," book publisher association Amnon Ben-Shmuel acknowledged. "It involves major expenses."
And Tzomet Sfarim says that it does not make money on the book fairs while Steimatzky's says the profits generated are not substantial. "We do it because of the major importance of marking Book Week and building the connection between members of the public and the [Steimatzky's] brand," the chain's CEO Iris Barel said. "We also don't do it in every city. We get a lot of requests and only do it in communities in which there is cooperation and a readiness to invest [in the event]. I was at the Rishon site when it was being set up and it was amazing. I saw all the workers cooperating with one another. It's wonderful for the workers and for the public."