Not by its cover

Bookstore-cafe May Books brings literature to the shuk

May Books co-owner Sarah Barkai (photo credit: ARIEL HENDELMAN)
May Books co-owner Sarah Barkai
(photo credit: ARIEL HENDELMAN)
Sarah Barkai loves books. She’s been hanging out in bookstores her entire life. So it’s only fitting that Barkai now owns a bookstore-cafe that just happens to be situated in Mahaneh Yehuda, where there is a rapidly evolving and increasingly vibrant cultural landscape that did not previously include any bookstores.
Born in France, Barkai, 41, moved to Jerusalem with her family when she was seven and grew up in Rehavia. “Some of my favorite bookstores are secondhand,” Barkai says. “Before Amazon and the Internet, before you could order anything you wanted, we would go to secondhand bookstores and rummage through to look for whatever it was we were trying to find.
“I remember looking for Isaac Asimov books. He is a sci-fi writer, but I never found any. People don’t sell their books by him, they keep them. But it’s always been books for me, stories, TV and movies.”
Barkai worked in hotels for the past seven years doing sales events and banqueting, but the job became too stressful and too exhausting. Despite the enormous amount of stress, the money Barkai saved did come to some good, as she put it toward her dream of attending film school. Barkai attended Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts, where she studied screenwriting.
Afterward, it was time for her to pursue her other dream: opening a bookstore-cafe. “I was talking to my good friend Noam Yona, who is my partner in the business, about opening up a bookstore-cafe in the shuk area,” Barkai recalls.
“This area is starting to get really trendy, but there are no bookstores. There is a thing about not having a bookstore in a market. There was an Israeli comedy sketch about this guy who laughs at his friend for opening up a bookstore in a market. But that’s exactly what I did.
“Every time I came here for shopping or just to hang out, a bookstore was what was missing for me. The shuk is a neighborhood, not just a market. The fact that we added the cafe was to add another layer and another reason for people to come in and sit down.”
May Books opened on January 1, at 4 Ha’eshkol Street, and carries both used and new books. Barkai emphasizes that she can order anything that a customer doesn’t find on the shelves. The selection is about one quarter in English and three quarters in Hebrew.
Barkai’s business partner is really the face of May Books and the one behind the counter every day. “We opened when it was freezing and miserable,” she says. “Slowly, people are starting to notice that we’re here and business is getting better and better. It’s a great location, although it would be better if they cleaned the street a little more often.”
May Books carries a selection that cannot be found anywhere else in Jerusalem. Barkai chose it carefully and lovingly with two other friends, all of whom are comic book enthusiasts. Ironically, one friend works for Steimatzky and the other for Tzomet Sfarim, two of the largest bookstore chains in Israel.
They began by making lists. Barkai was able to benefit from experience in terms of what people buy and what they prefer. “But what we like and what we think is good was also important,” Barkai states. “That’s why there is a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, because we like that stuff a lot. Those big bookstore chains don’t have a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, because it’s considered to be not the best literature. So we tried to emphasize that.”
Barkai brought comic books in to see what kind of demand there was and how customers would respond. Within two weeks, they were all gone. She decided to start bringing more in and now May Books has a whole shelf of comics. She emphasizes that most of the comic books are not suitable for children, however.
The superhero comic books can work for both, but May Books carries a lot of horror and fantasy. For instance, the popular television series The Walking Dead was first a comic book, which is not appropriate for the little ones. Other titles include Saga, Lock and Key, and Outcast.
For non-comic book aficionados, May Books has a wide selection of other offerings, even boasting a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in Hebrew. Barkai also brings in her personal copies of The New Yorker and National Geographic when she is done reading them for customers to peruse.
May Books’ decor is striking and bold; a red-andblack motif with accents of dark wood. Barkai was inspired by posters from her native France from May 1968, when a period of intense civil unrest and student uprisings caused mass strikes and temporarily brought the country’s economy to a halt.
“The idea for the decor comes from posters of May ‘68 in France and graffiti from that time,” Barkai explains. “It’s something that my parents always talked about and most people who live outside of France don’t even know about.
“It was one of those times where people said ‘enough is enough, we need to change this.’ There were a lot of changes to the government after that. A lot of corruption went away. So the design came from that and then we started adding. I wanted it to look like somebody’s living room; a cozy place where you could sit down for hours and read a book.”
The store, previously the Shem Tov restaurant and bar, had the bones that Barkai was looking for with dark wood ceiling beams and a beautiful wooden bar. Barkai and her brother built the bookshelves, reupholstered the chairs and repainted everything in the May ‘68 color scheme.
There is a full kitchen in the back, but Barkai has no plans to start offering food anytime soon. Occasionally, May Books will have baked goods like muffins and croissants. When there are special events, such as the popular monthly game night, pastries are offered.
Barkai’s parents have a mixture of pride and fear when it comes to their daughter’s new venture. After surviving the first six months, they still worry about the business going under. Barkai worries, too, adding that she is not naive about the statistics.
Through an active Facebook page and utilizing ads, more people are finding out about the little store that could. There is more interest now than ever before. “People know they can come here to get certain things that they can’t get anywhere else,” Barkai shares. “So we’ll see. You can’t know anything the first year. The first year, you’re learning. It’s a blank slate.”
Thus far, Barkai has learned that next year she will not stay open on Jerusalem Day. She was in the store all by herself and not one person came in. Conversely, Passover was a very busy time, with a lot of tourists. It is a learning curve that she takes in stride.
Barkai has also learned a thing or two about competing with the larger chains; that is, not to try to compete with them at all. The big chains can sell books very cheaply, and small stores like May Books can’t buy in bulk in the same way and offer competitive prices.
But what was once seen as a hindrance has become an advantage; it has enabled Barkai to find her niche. “We need to be better and more special,” she adds. “We need to have our own thing.
“The geeky stuff is my thing. We can’t compete with them on their own ground; there’s no way. We have a lot of books that they don’t. There are certain distributors that won’t work with the big chains at all, they only work with independents. It’s good for us and for them.
“Each one has to find the thing that they do. We can’t compete with them, so we have to do something different. They don’t have comic books and they don’t have pop dolls, or most of the games that I sell.” For the uninitiated, pop dolls are dolls fashioned after popular characters from television shows, movies or comic books. Currently, Game of Thrones pop dolls are popular.
Barkai is also a writer of sci-fi and horror material. Her fervor for the genres extends far beyond the shelves of May Books, but it is a passion that can be felt palpably in the store. “For me, with dramas, like movies where people die of cancer, I say why would I want to see that? It’s real life.
“With horror, fantasy, and sci-fi, you can do a lot more and show a lot more in a place that doesn’t have the borders of our world. I started watching the original Star Trek when I was eight years old. It was amazing to me that they could talk about politics and social issues without even talking about it. So that’s what I always liked about it. Books are an escape, but they’re an escape that should teach you something.”
When asked about her favorite book currently on the shelves, Barkai responds that it is Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box. Hill is Stephen King’s son, who writes supernatural horror fiction. Barkai is also a fervent fan of British author Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which she first read 15 years ago and has now become a major television hit.
May Books is an open and welcoming space for all of Jerusalem’s diverse residents, with no agenda but to have an open door for anyone who wants to enjoy a quirky and utterly charming bookstore-cafe experience.
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