Mayer's Bookstore: It's the Real Thing

Opened in 1908, Mayer's has supplied brain-fodder to both friends and foes for nearly 100 years.

bookshelves 888 (photo credit: )
bookshelves 888
(photo credit: )
Ven ikh bin geven zeks yor alt, hob ikh eyn mol gezen a prekhtik bild in a bukh vegn dzhunglen vos hot geheysn "Emese geshiktes." Dos bild hot forgeshtelt a boashlang vos shlingt ayn a khaye…. These are the opening words of a world-famous book that has reached best-seller status in Jerusalem over the past few years. It's a simple children's tale woven with threads of philosophy and poetic metaphor, Le Petit Prince, written by French author, journalist and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery a year before his death in 1943. But it is the Yiddish version of Le Petit Prince, quoted above, which soared to success following a review in an Israeli newspaper. There is only one shop in Israel where you can find this book, sitting on a shelf flanked by a rich variety of other Yiddish books. A glimpse away are shelves crammed with a compelling and eclectic selection of history, philosophy, Jewish studies, scientific thought, the classics of English literature, and a galaxy of books in German. This is a real bookshop, whose shelves still hold a few old tomes that have witnessed more than a century of Israel's turbulent history. The pockmarks on the wall outside are testimony to the British bullets that in 1947 sent its owner and his pregnant wife rushing for cover behind those selfsame books. This was my first visit to this, Jerusalem's oldest bookstore, founded in 1908 by Ludwig Mayer. How had I missed it? The Ludwig Mayer bookshop is not tucked away in a back street but situated directly opposite the Interior Ministry on Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka, a continuation of Jaffa Road. I now perceive the quiet dignity of a window display with an enthralling diversity of titles - Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy; The Jew in the Cinema; Opening The Gates: an Anthology of Arab feminist writing; Klimt; Dali. The truth is one's eye has become accustomed to the spectacle of a window display where a hundred copies of the same title are poised in gravity-defying arrangements. A window with visual modesty fails to impinge on one's consciousness. In fact I might never have noticed this shop if it were not for a letter written by Hermann Joseph Mayer, the founder's son. He contacted In Jerusalem with a brief synopsis of the history of this shop and an invitation to meet him. Mayer is now 90 and lives in a retirement home in Jerusalem. Although his legs have given up, his memory still serves him well, and he retells the story of his life, and that of his father, with great charm and clarity. His father, Ludwig Mayer, was born into a religious Zionist family in a town to the north-east of Berlin. In 1908 he decided to move to Palestine and open a bookshop. He spoke with Arthur Ruppin, who had just been appointed head of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization. While Ruppin thought that going to live in Palestine was a good idea, he dismissed the idea of a bookshop. But Ludwig Mayer, who had been trained for three years as a bookseller, was determined, and he opened his first shop near the Jaffa Gate. In 1910 he married Hedwig, who had left her home town of Hamburg to join him in running the bookshop. In 1912 they moved to buildings between what are now Kikar Tzahal and Kikar Safra. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Ludwig returned with his wife to Germany to fight for Kaiser and Vaterland. "I was produced in Israel," Hermann Mayer explained to me with a twinkle "but born in Germany in April 1915." His mother died when he was only eight. The Ludwig Mayer book business continued in Berlin, exporting to Palestine and America. The first boycott of Jewish businesses came on April 1, 1933. "It was Shabbat," Hermann Mayer describes the day vividly. "My father and I walked through the streets of Berlin to see what had happened. We came back at six in the evening and found a note stuck on our sign 'Jew, don't buy.'" His father immediately decided to leave Germany and return to Jerusalem, and on the Monday immediately went to his bank to set the wheels in motion. At that time you needed to show the British that you had finances of 13,000 marks - "the equivalent of one thousand pounds sterling," Hermann Mayer clarified. "Then you could get a visa to get into Palestine." In 1933 the Ludwig Mayer Bookstore opened on Coresh Street, and moved two years later to its present location on what was then Princess Mary Avenue. In 1937, Hermann was sent for a year to London, to train as a bookseller. He spent six months at the world-famous Foyles in Charing Cross Road. In 1941, he volunteered to join the British army, and became attached to the intelligence service operating with the RAF. He traveled with Montgomery's Eighth Army through North Africa, never more than 10 km. behind the fighter command. His job was to "listen on 58.5 to the German pilots" and provide information to the RAF. In 1945 he returned to Palestine to help his father run the shop, and was married a year later. It is eerily evocative to stand outside Ludwig Mayer and look across the road. In 1947, the British filled the street with ranked coils of barbed wire; a high fence beyond surrounded the British administrative center known by Jews as "Bevingrad" after the anti-Semitic British foreign secretary. The shop to the left of the bookshop, now awaiting new owners, had been an alley, but after it had been used as an access route in an attack on the British compound by the Irgun Zva'i Leumi it was closed off and turned into a shop. The wall space between the two shops has the clear scars of bullet holes. Mayer well remembers diving behind his books with his pregnant wife as the bullets flew. It was a very dangerous part of town and even the Reuters news agency abandoned its offices on Princess Mary Avenue. He recalls with a wry smile one unusual episode of his bookselling life. His wife ran a lending library from the shop. In the early 1960s a police officer came in, asked for German books, borrowed some and became a regular member of the library. The policeman was not a German speaker, and Mrs. Mayer was curious why he was taking these books. After several months he divulged that they were for "the most secure prisoner in the land." Mrs. Mayer didn't curtail the supply of books but said that "now she will decide which books Eichmann will read." Herzl's Zionist novel Altneuland and Adolf Bohm's History of the Zionist Movement were included in Eichmann's essential reading. Mayer continued to work in the shop together with his brother Rafael until 1997. In 1994 the ownership of the Ludwig Mayer bookstore moved out of the family but retained the name and ethos of its founder. It is now owned by Marcel Marcus, the former rabbi of Berne in Switzerland, who stumbled "by chance" into the ownership - although he made clear to me, as we sipped coffee in the adjacent Kadosh coffee shop, that "chance is when God stays anonymous." Nowadays, the bookshop not only stocks outstanding imported titles, it also exports Israeli books throughout the world. The libraries at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University and the library at Cambridge University are among its prime customers in England. A lecturer from Cambridge recently requested an out-of-print book originally published in Oxford. The book was found in Regensburg in southern Germany. When it arrived, he opened it to find the Ludwig Mayer bookshop sticker inside! This well-traveled book had gone from Oxford to Cambridge via Jerusalem, Regensburg and a second visit to Jerusalem. In the tradition of Mayer's, Marcus is a bookseller who knows and loves the books he sells. You can find him every day sipping a Turkish coffee in Kadosh, reading from his stock. He prides himself on maintaining the Mayer tradition of providing quality books to a quality readership. "Ludwig Mayer isn't McDonald's" he quips. Certainly not!