From commodity to collectible

A downtown bookstore is facing financial woes brought on by changing reading habits, technological upheaval and the local political climate.

Uri Rucham serves a customer 521 (photo credit: Max Schindler)
Uri Rucham serves a customer 521
(photo credit: Max Schindler)
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 industry.
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.
“Until 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.
With a 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, Uri.”
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.
Tatiana 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 the industry.
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 minimum.
“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.
Most 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.
“I 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 says.
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 free.”
Why? “Because I want to make people feel good about themselves.” •