Booked for success

For Anglo immigrants who enjoy reading, the ESRA bookshop fills an important niche.

books 88 (photo credit: )
books 88
(photo credit: )
Israel's only all English-language second-hand bookstore had humble origins. Ita Weiner, who was ESRA's Ra'anana office manager for many years, recalls the bookshop's co-coordinator Cynthia Shapiro. "In the back of her office she had a shelf of books she'd loan out. People could take a book, read it, and bring it back. About four years ago, ESRA (the English Speaking Residents Association of Israel) decided to expand the book operation and we took over several rooms adjacent to the Ra'anana office." For Anglo immigrants who enjoy reading, the ESRA bookshop fills an important niche. Most new immigrants experience culture shock when they see how expensive English-language books are in Israel. A new paperback costs somewhere between NIS 58 and 120, and hardcovers three times that - assuming they exist. While both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have second-hand bookshops that stock English-language books in addition to Hebrew, for Anglo residents who don't live in the center of the country, satisfying a reading habit can be an expensive proposition. In some communities, local residents have persuaded local libraries to stock some English-language books. Others have developed other book purchase or lending options, formal or informal. Even so, many of those solutions leave something to be desired, either because membership fees and/or book prices remain high, or because there's a kibbutz-austere mentality in strictly limiting the number of books one can borrow at a time. ESRA's enlarged bookshop has helped solve the English book supply problem for anyone who can get to Ra'anana. With new books coming in every day, the high turnover means there's always something new on the shelves, both fiction and non-fiction. There are thousands of books to choose from, no membership fees, and the basic price for a paperback is just NIS 7, with some bargain books priced at NIS 5 and a few shelves of newer books at NIS 12. Specialty books are individually priced. Best of all, because the books are donated and all labor is voluntary, the proceeds from the shop go back into the community, through several of ESRA's special projects. Cynthia Shapiro and Dorothea Walters, both 70, work as co-coordinators. "When I heard they were going to make the bookshop bigger, expand into sales, I volunteered right away," Shapiro recalls. "We have two large rooms, plus an anteroom where we have the bargain books. Everything is donated - a lovely gentleman came in and built our shelves, donating both the labor and the lumber. None of us who work here are paid, and all the books are donated." It's been observed that Shapiro has the perfect background for running a volunteer bookstore: Before retiring, she worked for several years in the zoology department of Tel Aviv University. "I was born in England. My husband was from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and we lived there for 21 years before making aliya in 1980. We came directly to Ra'anana, which was very different back then - hardly a traffic light. We started out in the absorption center with a group of wonderful people, most of whom stayed right here. I didn't go to work right away, but eventually began working for the university as an English secretary. When I left in 1998, the very next day, I went to work as an ESRA volunteer, starting in the Gan Rashal office. I've done a little bit of everything for ESRA, and it's always been fun." Walters, currently out of the country for several weeks, also came from England. "Dorothea was born in London and came to Israel in the 1980s. She worked as a secretary for one of the big hotels, so she has organizational skills, too. We do everything together." Shapiro and Walters spend four or five mornings a week at the shop. "Some of it is very hard work," Shapiro says. "When I came in this morning someone had left six big bags of books in the hallway. We're delighted to get the books, but there's considerable physical labor involved, too, hauling books back and forth. We also coordinate all the volunteers' schedules - we have 10 or 11 people who volunteer regularly, from all over the country. We're open Sunday to Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 1:30. Finding someone to work on Friday mornings has been difficult, because most of us are observant and don't want to work on Fridays. So now our Friday morning volunteer comes in from the north, which is very helpful." Book donations also come from all over the country. "We had a big load of new books come in this week," Shapiro notes. "Some came from Herzliya Pituah, others from Herzliya, Ramat Hasharon, Kfar Saba, as well as Ra'anana. Our customers come from Netanya in the north to Beersheba in the south. ESRA is a big, active organization with more than 800 people volunteering in some capacity, so people hear about us through ESRA and come to both buy and donate. We get an excellent mix of books that way." Not all donated books can be kept. "I firmly believe that there's a customer for every book," Shapiro says. "The problem is, we don't have room for them all. But there are other options, like book dealers who come to us regularly and buy huge quantities. Then, a couple of times a year, we have big book sales when we sell books at really low prices. There are some books we just dispose of, either because the condition isn't good or because we already have too many copies. We sell as many duplicates as we can in the anteroom - right now, all of John Grisham's books are there for NIS 5 apiece. We just need to move them, to make room for more." One major chore is categorizing the books. "That's one change Dorothea and I insisted on," Shapiro says. "We divided them into categories, and then alphabetized them within categories. Now it's easy to find a particular book. We also started an 'order book' to help our customers more." The ESRA 'order book' is unique. "When someone wants a particular book, we write down the customer's name and phone number," Shapiro says. "Then if the book comes in, we call them. People are amazed when we remember. Right now our order book runs about 34 pages, lists and lists of people and books they want, as many as 300-400 books at any given time. Just the other day, we had a lovely copy of a Martin Gilbert book come in, 'Letters to Auntie Fori.' I remembered someone wanted that, so I went through my order book and saw that in 2005, a woman named Shirley had listed that book. I called her - she was just delighted." How can they possibly remember individual books? "Dorothea and I both made a point to familiarize ourselves with the names of the popular authors. So if someone requests a certain book by Jodi Picoult, a very popular author right now, we remember. When a load of donated books comes in, we look for those requested books and then set them aside. When we have time, we call them to tell them their book is here. That part is fun." People also call in with requests. "Last week, a woman phoned to ask if we had a good English-Hebrew dictionary with large letters. I looked - and we did. Then she said, 'Will you post it to me?' Normally, we wouldn't do that, but in this case, she wasn't able to come in so I did post it. I know she'll pay for the book and for the post, too. You meet lovely, lovely people working here." Some books are sold many times over. "People buy books, read them, then donate them back," Shapiro says. "It happens all the time. When The DaVinci Code was first out, we had a list of 17 people who wanted it. So we sold it to the first person, who read it and returned it. Then we sold it to the second on the list - all the way through. Everyone who wanted it was able to read it. Now we have two copies on the shelves - the rush for that book is over. At the moment, the books by Alexander McCall Smith are pure gold. Everyone wants those." Some donations astonish even the volunteers. "Last week, one of the libraries gave us a load of coffee table books they didn't want - they were just gorgeous, some had hardly been opened. I went to to see what they cost, and then I priced them a little high - I might have to reduce the price a little. One was just incredible, photos of a glass exhibit in Jerusalem, so I put NIS 50 on that. One of our customers came in and offered me NIS 30, but I told him to go take a running jump," Shapiro says, laughing. "'No,' I told him, 'you're not having it for that. It's worth much more!' I'm a hard businesswoman - but we have lots of fun." Another donation caused trauma. "Someone brought in a box of magnificent illustrated children's books, a whole set. They were just incredible. We put a price of NIS 25 on each, and within just a few hours someone came in and bought all of them, just like that. Then, the next morning, a woman called to ask if that box of children's books had been brought to us. I said yes, it had. They'd been brought by mistake, the lady said. They'd been moving house and the wrong box had been delivered. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything we could do - the books were gone, and no one knew anything about the person who bought them. That whole thing was unfortunate - for our part, I was upset that we'd sold them for so little. They were really lovely." For ESRA, as an independent, non-profit organization created in 1979, the second-hand used bookstore fits right in with their mandate. "One of our objectives is to provide activities for English speaking people in the community," Shapiro says. "The shop has also become something of a social center. Some people stop by nearly every day, look around, see what's new. They may want a little friendly conversation more than actually buying a book. For us, every shekel we bring in is found money - our finance committee is very pleased! All our earnings go back into the community - we have projects for children, for immigrant youth, the blind, elderly, for food programs, after school activities." Both Shapiros are involved with ESRA. "My husband volunteers, too. Every Monday morning he goes to one of the schools and spends a couple of hours helping kids with English. Our own four children are all grown. We have one each in Jerusalem, Alon Shvut, Ra'anana and Ramat Beit Shemesh, plus 12 grandchildren. We're close enough to see each other every couple of weeks." About the bookshop, Shapiro says, "We love to get donations - especially paperbacks. When a new donation comes in, we all get excited. Lots of times we find books we've been waiting for, so as we sort them there's a lot of 'Wow, look at this! Wasn't that what so-and-so was looking for?' The bookshop is great for the community, and a fun place to work." The ESRA second-hand English bookshop is located at Beit Fisher, 5 Rehov Klausner, in Ra'anana. Call the ESRA office at 09-7482957, or Cynthia Shapiro at 052-4447842, not on Shabbat.