ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Interview'I was collecting material this whole time'

Taking a page, iconic Tel Aviv bookseller releases his 1st original story collection

Yosef Halper has served English readers from his rough location on Allenby Street for 30 years. Now the street and some of its regulars feature in his new book ‘The Bibliomaniacs’

  • Yosef Halper, who used the pen name J.C. Halper in a nod to his American-born name, shows off his first published book in his Tel Aviv store on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    Yosef Halper, who used the pen name J.C. Halper in a nod to his American-born name, shows off his first published book in his Tel Aviv store on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
  • Customers browsing Halper's Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    Customers browsing Halper's Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
  • All of Yosef Halper's four children have worked in the bookstore at various points but his son, who is a physical education teacher, still helps during the summers. Halper and his son look over boxes of purchased books on July 6, 2022 in Tel Aviv. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    All of Yosef Halper's four children have worked in the bookstore at various points but his son, who is a physical education teacher, still helps during the summers. Halper and his son look over boxes of purchased books on July 6, 2022 in Tel Aviv. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
  • Customers browsing Halper's Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    Customers browsing Halper's Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
  • The alleyway leading towards Halper's Bookstore on 87 Allenby St. in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    The alleyway leading towards Halper's Bookstore on 87 Allenby St. in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
  • Photos of some of the beloved customers at Halper's Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. Some of the people pictured inspired stories in owner Yosef Halper's own book, 'Bibliomaniacs.' (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    Photos of some of the beloved customers at Halper's Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. Some of the people pictured inspired stories in owner Yosef Halper's own book, 'Bibliomaniacs.' (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Yosef Halper owns somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 books. More than 60,000 are crammed into the floor-to-ceiling shelves in his iconic store on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street, Halper’s Bookstore, where he has kept a vigil over a rotating cast of eccentric customers for the past 30 years. There are another 20,000 or so books crowded into his storage unit, including rare books that he sells primarily online. And at least another 10,000-plus books squat in a few rooms of his home in piles, waiting to be sorted.

Most of these books are well-loved, the page corners worn smooth, trapping memories of various homes and lives in their bindings. A few have accompanied previous readers on late-night journeys, collecting greasy pizza or chocolate smudges. Others have collected dust from city streets around the world.

But perched on his cluttered desk at the entrance to the store, where Halper can keep a watchful eye over everyone who enters and exits, is a pristine pile of brand-new books with green covers. After 30 years of selling other authors’ works, Halper has now joined their ranks himself with the publication of his first book, “The Bibliomaniacs: Tales from a Tel Aviv Bookseller,” a collection of short stories loosely based on the collection of colorful characters who have populated his shop over the past three decades.

“I’ve always been shpeiling out stories, kind of collecting vignettes and incidents and crazy people,” Halper said, using the Yiddish word for playing out. “I was drawn to eccentricity… perhaps subconsciously I was collecting material all this time.”

Born James Charles Halper, the New Jersey native credits his shop’s location on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street as shaping the character of the store itself as well as its customer base in indelible ways.

“When I opened here in 1991, there was a porno theater across the street, and the prostitutes were standing right outside the theater at night and by the Great Synagogue,” Halper said.

The location in Tel Aviv’s rougher section wasn’t by accident. “In the beginning, I was so, let’s say, unsure and nervous about the project [of opening a second-hand bookstore] that I just kind of decided to find the cheapest rent in a central location.”

The alleyway leading towards Halper’s Bookstore on 87 Allenby St. in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Halper found a shuttered typewriter repair shop (“another industry that died)” at the end of a dark alley just off Allenby Street — a 22-square-meter (236-square-foot) shop that was just $250 a month. Over the years, Halper has expanded as other small businesses around him closed up shop and moved away: a tiny real estate office, a denture-fitting office, a Russian work visa office that smelled of a scam. But he’s stayed at the end of the same alleyway at 87 Allenby since 1991, watching the city change around him.

“I always think I should have maybe opened near the university, or North Tel Aviv or Dizengoff,” he said, referring to tonier slices of the city. “But I wanted to keep expenses low and I was attracted to the colorful things here.”

The people that feel more comfortable in the crowds and noise of Allenby rather than the leafy boulevards of North Tel Aviv are the types of people that make better characters for books — and the ones that Halper would rather hang out with, he acknowledges.

“Allenby is the one thoroughfare in Israel that most resembles lower Broadway in New York City,” Halper writes in the third entry of “The Bibliomaniacs.” “It is a long, wide, bus-congested artery of urban noise, schmootz [grime], and general blight, but also a magnet for the off-color and unusual folks from throughout the country and even the world. I felt right at home there.”

But it’s come with challenges.

Customers browsing Halper’s Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“Because it’s Allenby and I’m a bit of a shlumper, when I do have rare and valuable books, people don’t take it seriously and people are unwilling to pay,” Halper said, using a Yiddish word for shabby. “They think I’m more of a flea market operation, perhaps to my detriment, because I sell both romance novels and rare Judaica. I sell books for five shekels and I sell some books for 500 shekels.”

“Selling [books] that are cheaper — in the sense monetarily and literally — it does bring down the higher end books and maybe cheapens the store itself. But that’s just the way I am, I want to provide something for everybody,” he said.

After more than 30 years, Halper doesn’t plan on changing much. “My business plan is no plan, it’s just pretty haphazard.”

Bookmarked by immigrants

Some of Halper’s favorite, or most memorable customers populate the stories of “The Bibliomaniacs.” There’s Reuven the musician who is sure he is hearing the voice of God; Hyman, a professor, grief-stricken by the loss of his son on 9/11, carelessly throwing away his money on prostitutes and younger women; an alcoholic handyman named Tex that Halper hires for odd jobs to keep an eye on him; and Julian, a depressed British ex-felon who struggles to stay a few steps ahead of his creditors.

A strange thing happened once Halper collected all of his stories together for the book, a writing process that took over three years. He noticed that almost all of his stories were about immigrants like him.

“I think it wasn’t my intention, but I think that me being an American, I think I see things slightly different from how an Israeli approaches things,” said Halper. “After reading through all of the stories, there was indeed a thread of going through it, kind of people finding their way or feeling their way through life in Israel.”

All of Yosef Halper’s four children have worked in the bookstore at various points but his son, who is a physical education teacher, still helps during the summers. Halper and his son look over boxes of purchased books on July 6, 2022 in Tel Aviv. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Halper’s Bookstore is well-known among the Anglo community in Tel Aviv for its wide selection of English books. Originally, Halper planned to offer only English books, he said. But with the years, he ended up accumulating many Hebrew books as well. And as the population has shifted, he’s tried to move with it. As more and more French immigrants moved to the city, he created and expanded his French section.

“To me, going to a bookstore is like coming to a candy shop for some people,” said Sarabeth Lukin, a freelance writer and editor who lives in Jaffa.

“I’ve been in Israel for 28 years, so I’ve been coming here for 28 years,” Lukin said, as Halper tallied up her weekly bill with two bulging bags of books that came to almost NIS 500 ($152). “Libraries here don’t really carry extensive English language books, and I do not like eBooks. I like holding the book in my hand and reading it and turning the pages back so you can find something again. Books are really my whole life.”

Lukin and her husband brought 54 cartons of books when they moved to Israel, many of which she gave to Halper when she moved to her last apartment.

Halper said his frequent customers are divided into two camps: those who like to own books and keep them, and those who use his store almost like a library, returning and buying new books on an almost weekly basis.

Photos of some of the beloved customers at Halper’s Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. Some of the people pictured inspired stories in owner Yosef Halper’s own book, ‘Bibliomaniacs.’ (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The “Bibliomaniacs” title refers mostly to people who love owning books, though Lukin finds herself somewhere in the middle, often returning books on her biweekly trips to the store. “My mother lived to 105, she died three years ago. And one of my jobs was to get her books, because she read a book a day until the last two weeks of her life.”

“If you have the space, you can look at your bookshelf and look at a book and recall not just the title, but when you read it and what you thought of it,” she said, mentioning that though her husband was a big book hoarder she now keeps just her favorites. “The books I do keep resonate with me.”

Another big market for Halper is tourists, who might suddenly find themselves finished with their beach book and in need of a book for the plane.

Halper went briefly viral earlier this month when he shared a picture of actress Amber Heard in his store, whom he called “a modest, polite, friendly, inquisitive self-effacing customer with high literary tastes.”

Halper’s post about Heard, who just lost a highly-publicized lawsuit with Johnny Depp, was shared thousands of times. Heard also purchased Halper’s book.

Despite his store’s location set back from the street in a hidden alley, there’s always a steady stream of customers with strange questions about out-of-print books or hopes of finding specific books based on snippets of a half-remembered plot.

“I’m looking for the Hebrew-English dictionary with the red cover,” one disheveled customer said to Halper on a summer afternoon. “You were in here last week, I don’t think we’ve gotten any since then, but we have lots of other Hebrew-English dictionaries,” Halper told him. But the man wanted only this specific dictionary, even though he could only remember the color of the cover. “It’s got the best definitions,” he said, before shuffling out.

Allenby Street is turning the page

Thirty years as a small business owner in Tel Aviv, as well as fodder for dozens of stories, has provided Halper with countless frustrations.

“Let’s say that my compensation is that I’m doing something I love to do. And even though it’s something I love to do, there’s so much bullshit around it, like the municipality, income tax, property tax, sign taxes, and a thousand other things… the love of books kind of overpowers the problematic aspects of running a business in Israel,” he said.

And more change is on the horizon: In September, parts of Allenby Street will begin a five-year closure for the construction of the Purple Line of the new Tel Aviv light rail. While better public transportation is desperately needed in the city, Halper wonders what will happen to all of the small businesses like his on Allenby, which are barely holding on after the coronavirus pandemic closures.

Foot traffic has always been essential for him. On a normal weekday, at least 180 buses and 1,500 people pass through the street each hour.

Illustrative: Light rail construction taking place at the intersection of Allenby and Yehuda Halevi streets in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Halper used to have dozens of small businesses as neighbors, artisans who did shoe or jewelry repair, or small insurance offices. The entire building above him used to consist of small businesses but now houses pricey apartments. Many smaller second-hand book stores, including those that specialized in languages such as Polish or Hungarian, have gone out of business in the past decade, he said.

“What made Tel Aviv great were these small, quaint, old-time businesses,” he said. “They’re being killed off as soon as you cut back access to delivery trucks and not allowing people to approach the city in their vehicles.”

Halper worries that Allenby’s gentrification could turn it into “just another Ibn Gvirol type of thing, where every third every third place is fast food, a hamburger joint or boutique of some sort,” he said, referring to a fancy street running through north Tel Aviv.

“With this building of the light rail and all, they don’t give a shit about small businesses and people making their livelihood, they do not care,” he said. “As a matter of fact, if anything, they’d like to see everyone gone and just have one big SuperPharm and Nike outlet and be rid of all these little problematic businesses.”

Halper said the five years of closures on the major thoroughfare of Jabotinsky Road in Ramat Gan and Bnei Barak to build the light rail there have given him an insight into what’s in store for the next five years, and he’s not sure he will survive.

“I may have to move,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll work out of a warehouse in a town near the airport and do only internet stuff.”

Customers browsing Halper’s Bookstore in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

But Halper also loves the liveliness of his store, the constant flow of new people coming in with new stories for him to collect. He might write a second book about the process of buying books, which also comes with a host of eccentric characters and wild stories — though it’s often tied to the heartbreak of a family needing to get rid of possessions after a death.

And he’s not worried — at least for now — about the future of books. People already predicted the death of bookstores when electronic readers came out. Halper said that for a while after the Kindle and Nook e-readers became popular, he saw a drop in customers. But after a year or two of reading from screens, most of his regular customers who had left came back. They just love having a real, live book in their hands, Halper explained.

“As long as new books are being printed, that’s a sign that people are still reading actual paper and glue books. And so as long as books are still being printed, there’ll be room for used books,” he said.

And maybe in a few years, Halper might come across his own name in a pile of books waiting to be sorted when someone who’s read his book passes it on for the next person.

“I’m still in euphoria over just having the ink still fresh on the freaking thing,” Halper said. “But it’s scary to put your own book on the shelf.”

“The Bibliomaniacs” is available at Halper’s Bookstore as well as independent bookstores in Jeruslaem and Tel Aviv including Tmol Shilshom, Migdal Or, Sipur Pashut, Tolaat Sefarim, and Adraba.

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