Pioneer bookseller

A bookstore in downtown Jerusalem for more than a century mirrors the development of Israel.

Marcel Marcus 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Marcel Marcus 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Who says there are no jokes about booksellers? One day, a bookseller won the national lottery. Asked about his plans, he replied, “I’ll just keep selling books until the prize money runs out.”
Selling books is indeed a difficult business, but, separated by over a century, two German Jews have successfully operated a bookshop from downtown Jerusalem. The first, Ludwig Mayer, founded the store in 1908 and my father, Marcel Marcus, took over in 1994. Much about the store has remained unchanged. Post office box, telephone number and the address are the same since the 1930s. The iconic logo, an owl hovering over Hebrew and Latin initials, remains the same, too.
At the nearby Jerusalem Central Post Office, where Marcus ships and receives daily parcels of books, people invariably call him Ludwig. But despite all that, there have also been changes, many of which seem indicative of the transformation Israel experienced over the last 100 years.
Ludwig Mayer was born to a family of respected wool merchants in Prenzlau, northeast of Berlin, in 1879. He came from a religious, Zionist family and at a very early age decided to open a bookshop in Jerusalem.
After apprenticing as a bookseller, he presented the World Zionist Organization with his plans, only to be disappointed.
“Aber Herr Mayer,” they replied, “we are certainly thrilled that you want to establish yourself in Palestine – but by selling books? You have to understand, Herr Mayer, it is a new Jew living in Palestine, he works the soil! He has no need for books!” Even Zionist leader and Tel Aviv co-founder Arthur Ruppin explicitly advised against the plan. He thought books in Palestine would prove bad business. Mayer was not easily dissuaded and in 1908, aged 29, he opened his first store outside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, in what today is the Mamilla mall. Mayer was convinced he would be able to sell books, eyeing as customers the German Consulate and several German institutions, such as the Augusta Victoria Hospice, the German Church of the Redeemer and Dormition Abbey, all of which had their own libraries.
As much of the education in Palestine was funded by the Aid Association of German Jews, the language of instruction was still predominantly German. Mayer was proven right, and just two years after opening shop he was able to marry Hedwig Luebcke, a teacher three years his junior from Hamburg. They soon moved the shop to larger premises close to Jaffa Gate. And a picture of the time shows them in European attire, standing at the entrance to their new store on a winter morning, smiling happily into the camera.
Mayer imported books and magazines from all of Europe in various languages.
At the time the Jewish community of Palestine was entangled in a fight over its own lingua franca. The founding committee of the Jewish Technical Institute, today the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, decided that all technical and scientific subjects would be taught in German.
This endangered the vulnerable advance Hebrew had made in the German Aid Association’s schools, and so a group of German Zionists in Palestine opposed to the decision wrote to Germany’s Imperial Consul in Constantinople. In their letter they stressed that their position stood not in contradiction to their patriotic duties.
Rather, they were dedicated to the revival of Hebrew and deplored the decision’s harmful effect on its development. Among the 27 signatories were Hedwig and Ludwig Mayer.
Ironically, when World War I broke out six months later, in August 1914, Mayer and his wife mustered all their patriotism and returned to the fatherland. After the Armistice in 1918, Hedwig found employment as a Hebrew and religious studies teacher with a Jewish day school in Leipzig, while Ludwig continued supplying books to Palestine. The Technion and newly founded Hebrew University of Jerusalem were now among his customers, eager to acquire the latest academic publications from Europe.
Mayer occasionally visited Jerusalem during the 1920s, but always claimed the time was not ripe to return permanently.
This certainly changed once Hitler rose to power. The Nazis declared a boycott of Jewish stores in April, 1933, and upon returning home from the synagogue Mayer found a sticker affixed to his shop saying “Jude – Don’t buy!” He immediately decided to return to his shop in Jerusalem, arriving in June of the same year. The reopening of his bookstore was advertised in the pages of The Palestine Post (now The Jerusalem Post) on October 23, 1933 with a short announcement: “Mr.
Ludwig Mayer, of Berlin, who conducted a book store in Jerusalem from 1908 until the outbreak of the Great War, when he left to join the German army, has returned to Jerusalem.
He intends to open a new bookshop.”
Mayer did not return alone. The 1930s and 40s saw a large influx of German-speaking immigrants to Palestine, and a sprouting of foreign libraries and bookstores.
The Jerusalem Mayer returned to was much different from the one he left before the war. Indeed, the organ of British publishers and booksellers, The Publisher’s Circular, reported from Palestine in 1935 about “rapid commercial and cultural progress” where “Jew and Arab alike are participating in a prosperity that may be the envy of more favored lands.”
In contrast, author Amos Oz recalls that during the same years, when sometimes there was not enough money to buy food for Shabbat, his father would sell a couple of his books to “Mr. Ludwig Mayer.” According to the Publisher’s Circular, the recent immigration of “Hitler refugees” included scientists, philosophers, technicians and business men. The Jewish public in Palestine was “strongly intellectual,” favoring “serious books, sociology and political economy, in general literature with a leaning to high-brow fiction.”
Across from Ludwig Mayer’s establishment, on Princess Mary Avenue (today Shlomtzion Hamalka Street), were the British Mandate police headquarters. After the Irgun Jewish militia bombed the central Post Office in 1939, the avenue was cordoned off with barbed wire to form a closed security zone. Jewish volunteers would go windowshopping on the southern side of the street to encourage storekeepers and demonstrate a Jewish presence. Many years later, one of them remembered how this posed a good excuse to go and browse at Ludwig Mayer’s.
Indiscriminate firing occasionally forced Mayer and his customers to seek protection behind the books. In August 1947, “overenthusiastic shooting” left several shops along Princess Mary Avenue damaged. “In the window – or what remains of it – of Ludwig Mayer’s bookshop,” The Palestine Post noted, “was a copy of ‘Insh’allah’ a new publication written by a Palestine policeman.”
A year later, the Jewish state was founded; its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was among Mayer’s most illustrious customers. Meanwhile, the Hebrew University had become the country’s most advanced academic institution, and, since there was no university bookstore, Ludwig Mayer supplied much of the reading lists.
One of the most memorable reading lists, however, did not originate from the university. Rather, it was given to a police officer visiting the store in 1961. He came back each week, asking for precisely six German books on any subject. At first he would not say for whom the books were intended, but after several months he shared the secret: the volumes went to the country’s most vilified prisoner, former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. Esther Mayer, Mayer’s second wife, fainted upon hearing his name, and then decided to supply Eichmann with reading material she carefully chose for him. All books available to Eichmann during his final period of incarceration were on Zionism, including Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” and Adolf Böhm’s “The Zionist Movement.”
After Jerusalem was reunited six years later, ISRAEL Magazine sent the New York journalist Howard Blake to report on life in the newly enlarged city. Blake was generally enamored by Jerusalem and did not fail to mention Ludwig Mayer’s “famous bookshop.” The store was celebrating its 60th anniversary at the time and Blake, humorously, copied down the titles laid out in the display window, “so you will know what everybody in Jerusalem is reading these days.”
Mayer died 10 years later, in 1978, at the age of 99. One obituary in Die Welt described him as Jerusalem’s “oldest and most famous book dealer,” who “believed in reading the books which he then recommended to his customers.” His two sons, Herman and Rafael, continued running the store into the 1990s, but his grandchildren chose different careers. Two generations of family enterprise thus came to an end, threatening to close an institution, when yet another immigrant with Berlin roots, Marcel Marcus, bought the store in the mid-1990s.
“Of course the book business is in crisis,” my father tells me over coffee at a nearby café. “It’s not necessarily that people read less, but they certainly read fewer books.”
Today, a lot of scientific information is available from the Internet for free. Even if many clients claim that electronic books lack the experience of “leafing through,” Marcel knows well that it’s a radical transformation, certain to put an end to paperbacks.
And while, yes, fewer books will be sold in the future, those to suffer most will be the big chains, not the smaller, specialized bookstores. At the large chain stores, less and less space is dedicated to books and the “non-book” can make up for more than half of revenue. This will only strengthen the position of small bookstores like Ludwig Mayer, says Marcus. The secret to enduring success, he believes, is to continue in Mayer’s footsteps and provide personal and professional advice.
The differences are striking. While Ludwig Mayer built a business on importing academic publications to Israel, Marcus now concentrates on exporting scholarly works to the rest of the world. Among his customers are libraries and universities that need to keep track of Israel’s vibrant output of research, from archaeology to zoology, and from philosophy to physics. This is testimony to the transformation of Israel over the last 100 years, from an area on the periphery of European science and culture, to an economic and scholarly powerhouse exporting its ingenuity and knowledge to the rest of the world.
Marcus proudly pulls out his iPad to demonstrate the newly designed electronic version of his store. Designed as a book, it allows users anywhere to browse through the available titles. As I try out the site, I tell my father the joke about the bookseller who won the national lottery. He smiles and comes up with one of his own: “A man walks into a bookstore saying, ‘I hope you have no books about reverse psychology.’