In an age of e-books and chain stores, stumbling across an indie bookshop is
akin to finding a record store or a phone booth.
Technology has made it
obsolete, turning a commodity into a collectible.Today, the
brick-and-mortar independently owned bookstore is a dying breed. Jerusalem’s new
and used English-language bookstore Sefer Ve Sefel (A Book and a Mug) is no
different, facing structural shifts in the book-selling
Although there are no short-term plans to close or sell Sefer
Ve Sefel, the bookstore is fraught with fiscal woes wrought by changing reading
habits, technological upheaval and the local political climate.
five years ago the store was profitable,” owner Uri Rucham confided last week,
“and right now we’re just breaking even.”
On a winding alley off busy
Jaffa Road downtown, the picturesque, second-story store whisks the reader back
to an era of European literary salons. Rucham speaks slowly and can be caught
chain smoking, perched on the store’s balcony.
Celebrating its 25th
anniversary this year, Sefer Ve Sefel on Yavetz Street can claim many
accomplishments. The store was voted “the best used English-language bookstore
in the Middle East,” according to the Lonely Planet travel guide.
collection spanning all genres, Sefer Ve Sefel is a book lover’s bargain, with
heavily discounted books on the outdoor porch. The shop purchases older books and receives returns, proffering payment
or store credit.
Sefer Ve Sefel faces fierce price competition from the
strangling duopoly of booksellers Steimatzky and Tzomet Sefarim. Rucham
emphasizes his store’s familial atmosphere, outlining the differences between
Sefer Ve Sefel and the national chains.
“At Steimatzky, the salesperson
doesn’t know much – only the best-sellers and the reviews,” says Rucham. “Here,
people come, set the books on the counter and say, ‘Choose me a book,
When asked to prove his point, Rucham motions to wait. A
middle-aged Israeli-American customer enters the store, wanting a book
recommendation. Armed with only a vague description, “a best-seller about a
trilogy,” Rucham ponders for a moment and pinpoints the request.
and Alexander,” he mutters, striding to the nearest bookshelf. “The author is
Paulina Simons,” he adds.
When asked, Rucham offers succinct plot
summaries from books he read more than 30 years ago, a feat for a bookseller in
Despite the superior quality of service and charming,
intellectual atmosphere, Sefer Ve Sefel has seen its fair share of local turmoil
– from the second intifada to light rail construction on Jaffa Road. The events
have blighted the bookstore, squeezing its profit margin to the bare
“The train [construction] was the second intifada for us,” says
Rucham. “I don’t want to sound terrible, but it’s a question of business – how
people get here.”
What’s more, new and used bookstores no longer carry
the same operating margin as in the days before the Internet. E-book tablets
such as the Kindle and online megalith sellers like Amazon have cut into the
store’s traditional clientele. Initially, Rucham explains, long-term customers
would purchase a book online but realize that it was the wrong copy. They would
come to the store and sell it.
“The biggest question is technology – how
the Kindle will affect us,” Rucham says.
But as Sefer Ve Sefel’s
customers are predominantly modern Orthodox Jews, who not use a Kindle on
Shabbat – a violation of Halacha – they still frequent the store.
book buyers are older Jewish-American expatriates, a demographic challenge for
the industry and the store.
“Young people don’t read,” says Rucham,
worrying about the future of printed, paper books. “Is it a good sign for the
book business?” The store contains about 20,000 to 30,000 books, two-thirds of
them publicly displayed, says Rucham. The store specializes in Judaic nonfiction
and houses an exemplary modern fiction section.
Sefer Ve Sefel also runs
a small publishing house, including an authoritative English-language
translation of the Bible printed in conjunction with the Jewish Publication
Society. The house has published 16 books, all handpicked by Rucham.
look for books out of print, second-hand ones that have a lot of demand,” he
says. “I search throughout the world for the royalty.”
One book Rucham
published is Genesis 1948: The First Arab- Israeli War. “Once, I got a
second-hand copy [of Genesis] and I said that I wanted to reprint the book. I
found the royalties with a guy in New Jersey… and we made the deal. I want to
introduce books that have a chance in the Israeli market.”
Prior to the
start of the second intifada in September 2000, business was at an all-time high
at Sefer Ve Sefel. Rucham made an average of 100 sales a day. During the height
of the second intifada – March 2002 – business was virtually nonexistent, he
Today, the “mug” in Sefer Ve Sefel is inoperative, as the store
shuttered its café side 10 years ago.
“The idea of a coffee
shop/bookstore is wonderful,” says Rucham, but it’s much harder to operate after
tabulating inventory and labor costs.
Despite the many problems posed by
technology, Rucham discusses the changing nature of the book business and ends
on a more poignant note.
“This year is going to be the 25th year, and I
hope for another 25 years,” he says. As a reward, if customers spend more than
NIS 100 at the store, “they can choose one of a selection of books
Why? “Because I want to make people feel good about themselves.” •
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