Reading between the aisles

An innocuous-looking Tel Aviv bookstore is a haven for eclectic bibliophiles.

That could the current president of Israel, an ex-convict, a famous Israeli poet, a marijuana-addicted street person known as "Grandpa Grass," and Queen Elizabeth of England possibly have in common? Avid readers and booklovers, all of them have been customers of an extraordinary second-hand bookshop, hidden away in the heart of Tel Aviv. Halper's Bookstore does not advertise much. In the words of one regular customer, "If you don't know it's there, well you don't know it's there." The entrance at 87 Rehov Allenby is nothing more than a little glass showcase with a few books, the name of the store, and an arrow pointing down a long, dark alley. At the end of the alley is a door - pass through it and you enter Halper's, a labyrinth of claustrophobia-inducing little rooms crammed floor-to-ceiling with books. The first impression is one of utter chaos; but don't be fooled. The thousands of books, mostly in English, are carefully displayed by subject, ranging in everything from earth science to Jewish history, classic literature to cookbooks, coffee table art books to paperback science fiction, cinema and photography to New Age alternative medicine, and popular bestsellers to obscure books on Chinese philosophy. Despite the clutter, the shop is meticulously clean and well lit, and the books - lovingly cared for and displayed on dust-free shelves - are in remarkably good condition. Prices are surprisingly low. Customers can get help locating a specific book or lose themselves in the store's maze of bookshelves, browsing undisturbed for hours on end. Presiding over this scene is Yosi Halper, the store's owner and guiding spirit. Forty-five years old and married with four children, Halper made aliya from the U.S. in 1983 and opened the bookshop in 1991, after serving in the army and trying his hand at a few other occupations. Clad in a faded blue T-shirt and well-worn jeans, with a Tony Soprano-like New Jersey accent, he hardly matches the tweed jacket with suede patches image of a purveyor of rare and out-of-print books. "Yeah, I don't really fit the stereotype, do I?" Halper agrees with a chuckle. "But I've always enjoyed reading. Our house was full of books when I was growing up. My mother was an English teacher. I used to spend huge amounts of time in bookstores and have a college degree in history. All of this helped me find a niche here in Israel." The store is busy, with customers of all ages and from every walk of life constantly trickling in. About half are native Israeli (roughly one third of the stock is in Hebrew). "Educated Israelis read English," Halper notes. "The rest are veteran olim from everywhere: backpacking tourists, foreign embassy personnel -- you name it." Some people come to search for one or two books by a specific author, others to pore through books on a particular subject. Many come just to browse, while others arrive with bags of books to sell. A few wander in for reasons that have nothing to do with books at all -- sometimes for nothing more than a place to rest and a sympathetic ear to talk to. Friendly and soft spoken, Halper has time for them all. One young man, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University in New York, drifted in during our visit to ask where he could get his bicycle repaired. Halper amiably gave him directions to a nearby shop. "As you can see," Halper says as the young man leaves, "this place is also an information center for Anglo-Saxons. We have people coming in with all kinds of problems. I had one fellow, well known here in downtown Tel Aviv as "Grandpa Grass." He was close to 80 and would smoke marijuana all the time. He wore a beach towel as a skirt, his hair in dreadlocks, and had a long white beard. He had fled Austria before the Second World War and then had been some kind of genius with a scholarship to Princeton from the U.S. Navy. Over the years, something happened to him -- I don't know what. Here in Israel, he didn't have a fixed address, so I became his mailing address. His pension checks would come to the store, and he would drop by to pick them up. When he died, it fell on me to arrange for the funeral. This is just one of the roles of a bookstore owner that deals with ex-pats." Aside from tempting customers with the thousands of books in his store, Halper also does a thriving business on the Internet. "I have about 2,000 books listed on the web, which I keep in a special storage place. I've had customers from all over the world -- even one in Pakistan. I got an order from England a while back for a biography of a former king of Denmark. As I was processing the order, I saw that the mailing address was Buckingham Palace. I thought it was a hoax, so I called the attached telephone number. Sure enough, it was Buckingham Palace and the person I spoke to informed me that the book was in fact for Queen Elizabeth. I said, 'Okay, fine' and sent it. I even stuck a couple of my store's refrigerator magnets in the book for the queen to put on her fridge." Halper purchases almost all his stock from people in Israel: from personal libraries, via small advertisements in immigrant association magazines, and from individuals who fill up their cars with books and drive around Tel Aviv selling them to used-book stores. "I can get more than enough books in Israel just from people calling me. I'll go anywhere in the country to buy good books." Occasional trips to his family back in New Jersey are opportunities to replenish his large stock of science fiction -- very popular in Israel and thus hard to find. "People here collect them and almost never want to sell them," he notes. Halper's small but growing army of loyal customers display both an abiding love for the store and a stubborn determination to overlook the place's minor deficiencies. Halper's wins no prizes for interior design. The store is not chic, does not serve coffee, and has no place to sit apart from the floor. The shop's little warrens of books are cramped and difficult to navigate when the place is full of distracted booklovers. The store's air-conditioning struggles - at times unsuccessfully - to keep pace with the summer heat. In fact Halper's customers generally agree that there would be little reason to go there if not for the extensive stock of out-of-print, hard-to-find books, a huge collection of popular books at low prices, and the pleasant, welcoming atmosphere.