When a Bookseller Writes a Book

A legendary Tel Aviv bookstore owner's debut story collection is full of memorable characters and gripping tales from one of the city's grittiest areas.

“I have an innate tendency, perhaps it is a fault, to let people lie to me,” Yosef Halper confesses well into The Bibliomaniacs, his debut story collection based on his experiences as the founder, owner, and hands-on manager of Halper’s Books, a used bookstore in a narrow alley off Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. He explains:

“I had no pressing reasons to suspect people of deviousness. Thus, more often than not, if people told me illogical stories about themselves, I usually rolled with them. Maybe this person did serve in Nam at the age of sixteen, or prevented World War IV as a secret CIA agent, or was abducted by aliens, or heard God speaking to him? True? Not true? Who cared? I wouldn’t get indignant. I’d just enjoy the BS…”

Full disclosure: I first encountered Halper’s writing as the instructor of a creative writing group that he set up in Tel Aviv. But I wasn’t the only one who found his tales of the local bibliophiles, rare-book collectors, tourists, and drifters that gravitate towards his shop original and engaging; when acclaimed author Yirmi Pinkus (originally a customer, now a friend) showed a sample of Halper’s writing to Shira Hefer of Locus Books, she offered him a contract to publish the collection not only in English, but also in a Hebrew edition, slated to come out this fall.

The above quoted passage is telling, suggesting some of the character traits that enabled an American Jew from New Jersey to open, against heavy odds, a bookstore in the heart of one of the grittiest, grubbiest areas of Tel Aviv. Halper was well aware of the incongruity. As he describes it:

“Allenby is the one throughfare in Israel that most resembles lower Broadway in New York City It is a long, wide, bus-congested artery of urban noise, schmootz, 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.”

Halper recalls some of the trials and tribulations that threatened to ruin the venture before the store even opened in a story entitled “How I Became a Bookseller.” The year is 1990, and Halper, who first made Aliya in 1983, and his Israeli wife are broke. Together with their two young children (and a third on the way), they plan to fly to New Jersey and decamp in his parents’ basement. A few days before they leave, Halper spots a “for sale” sign at Sefer ve Sefel, the well-known used bookstore in Jerusalem. A lifelong booklover who got his start perusing his mother’s bookshelves (“One title in particular intrigued me, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. “Wow, naked!” I thought, “but what was this dead stuff all about?”) he today pinpoints that moment as when the idea of owning a bookstore first took root. “It was packed floor to ceiling with English paperbacks,” he recalls. “This was my vision of paradise, to be surrounded by books in an intellectual atmosphere of reading and conversation.”

Back in the US, he began to buy stock from garage sales, flea markets, and public libraries. Desperate to make some money, he would shlep his books to Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, where he set up a table on the sidewalk alongside an incense vendor and a “friendly Nigerian fellow who sold five-dollar Rolex knock-offs.” His business took off, but counter-intuitively, he and his wife decided to return to Israel. “The decision almost came down to a coin toss. But, strangely, with the Gulf War looming and Israel under threat, we decided that our place was back in Israel…God only know why.” After shipping over 10,000 books across the ocean and navigating the Kafkaesque Israeli customs office, Halper finally opened his store in October 1991.

The bookstore, as Halper portrays it in The Bibliomaniacs, is a fascinating intersection point of high and low, readers and writers, intellectuals and working class, drifters and dreamers. But what anchors and focuses these stories is the persona of Halper himself, at the center of it all. His first-person voice is friendly, tolerant, even-handed and ultimately an expression of common-sense morality. He’s slow to judge even the most unruly or troubled, and his worldview is tempered by the notion that good, well-meaning souls can fall on hard times that lead them to make bad decisions. And if need be, he isn’t beyond inviting some of these unfortunates into his personal life.

In “A Bottle of Dimple,” for example, Halper relates a tale about his relationship with a customer called Julian whom he describes as “…not your stereotypical bibliophile, but a tough-looking and talking Brit who would appear to be more at home as a doorman at an after-hours club in Soho than in a dusty Tel Aviv bookstore.” When Halper discovers (and is given permission to take) a bottle of 1974 Scotch while collecting books from a Tel Aviv apartment, Julian persuades him to share it (“Open it up and let’s have a drink, you cheap wanker…”) Thus begins a Friday afternoon tradition of pre-Shabbat parties at the store’s entrance, where hard liquor is served up with beer, herring, onions, cheese and crackers. Browsing patrons, naturally, are invited to partake.

Despite—or perhaps because of—Julian’s irreverent personality and seemingly shady past, Halper is drawn to him. He begins having him home for Shabbat dinners, against his religious wife’s objections, and even invites him to his son’s wedding, held in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of B’nei Brak. At first Julian, half Jewish but defiantly antireligious, is reluctant: “I love your son like a nephew mate, but I ain’t gonna be sittin’ there with no fuckin’ rabbis, those wankers can all kiss my fuckin’ ass.”

Julian comes to the wedding, and even enjoys himself. (“Julian may have broken a record that night, being the first person ever to openly light a joint at a table inside an ultraorthodox Bnei Brak wedding hall.”) But sadly, things don’t end well for him. Halper chronicles the ups and downs of the relationship, forgiving Julian’s faults even when they come to blows. It’s fitting that he closes the collection with an aftermath to Julian’s story.

In its accretion of stories about the people that frequent the store, The Bibliomaniacs mirrors a world of imperfect people, making the best of what fate has handed them. Talia, a “known far-left journalist, model, single mother and occasional customer” complains that her daughter is rebelling against her by serving in the army—in a combat unit, no less. “A disaster,” Talia laments, “I find it hard to look my friends in the face.” But Halper notices her scrolling through photos of her daughter with “a look of admiration in her eyes,” only to retreat to “a safe haven in the paranormal phenomena section” when she realizes that he is watching her.

And then there is Chaim “Hymen” Greenberg, who introduces himself to Halper as a retired music teacher and librarian from Cleveland. Hymen has an eye for the ladies and a penchant for foreign young women. He first takes up with Yanna, a stripper from Ukraine who swindles him before returning home, and then marries Geraldine, a Yiddish-speaking Filipina who doesn’t want to leave the country. The years pass, and Halper follows Hymen’s misadventures. When he calls to check in on him at his retirement village, Hymen laments,

“My choices were poor. I was led on by my schmeckle and not my brain, Here I am at the end of the road, and what for God’s sake have I accomplished? Bubkkes. I’m in this fancy place but don’t a shekel to buy a Snickers bar. I am a fool and a failure.”

Halper consoles him:

“You’ve got a big heart Hymele. You helped people less fortunate than yourself, even Yanna and Geraldine. They were people in need, and you helped them.”

Kindhearted and sympathetic to the plight of others, Halper is clearly fascinated by those who break the rules. The collection includes two stories which have little to do with books but a lot to do with systemic corruption, political power plays, and the ethnic tensions that underlie Israeli society. The stories qualify as fiction, but one senses that they’re sourced from Halper’s unique vantage point and insights into human behavior.

Reading these tales of human foibles and fallibilities gives rise to questions about the relationship between literature and life. The books that line the shelves of Halper’s store figure mainly as props to the real-life dramas that play out alongside them. (In one of the stories, a large order of books is purchased for precisely that purpose—as a décor element in a law office). And yet here is Halper, putting those dramas into writing, and then into a book, which will still be here after Julian, Yanna, and Hymen are long gone. Perhaps in the wake of this review you’ll buy it and read it, and then put it in your bookshelf, where it will sit for who knows how many years, maybe never to be touched again. Until the day comes when someone shows up who owns a used bookshop, and buys it for a pittance, and it’s again placed on a shelf in a store, waiting for fate to call in its next reader.

 

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