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Despite niche market, Jewish bookstores vulnerable to online alternatives

Despite niche market, Jewish bookstores vulnerable to online alternatives

Chai Judaica in Millburn is “more of a gift shop than a bookstore,” according to the store’s manager Rivkie Bogomilsky. Photo by Shira Vickar-Fox
Chai Judaica in Millburn is “more of a gift shop than a bookstore,” according to the store’s manager Rivkie Bogomilsky. Photo by Shira Vickar-Fox

When New Jersey began to relax its restrictions on businesses during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rabbi Sam Shimoni recently re-opened Judaica Gallery in Highland Park, a local store for 30 years for customers searching for a swath of Judaic items. Shimoni knows what most of his customers are looking for, and it’s not what you’d expect from the classic Jewish bookshop.

“It’s hardly ever books,” he said. “They come in and look at everything else. If we just carried books, we’d never stay in business. Things have changed with Jewish bookstores in the years we have been in business. Even Manhattan’s J. Levine Books & Judaica, which I used to go to all the time, closed. There is no future in Jewish bookstores.”

It’s no secret that bookstores — even colossal big-box stores like Barnes & Noble — have been flailing ever since online vendors like Amazon, and others, cornered the market on their signature products. Even local Judaica shops, which specialize in niche tomes and collections, are feeling the squeeze.

“On-line sales are what hurt the old bookstores more than anything,” said Shimoni, who noted that multiple editions of the Talmud — as well as other esoteric texts — can be purchased online at lower prices than he could possibly offer given normal retail markups. “It’s just too easy to search, click, and have what you want delivered to your house or wherever. We’re proud to be the only independent Judaica store in central New Jersey, but our business is much more Judaica and gifts than books at this point.”

Rivkie Bogomilsky, who, as part of Chai Center Chabad in Millburn, operates Chai Judaica, agrees with Shimoni’s assessment.

“Books probably make 30 to 40 percent of our business,” she told NJJN. Chai Center Judaica has been in Millburn since 1995. “Really, we’re more of a gift shop than a bookstore. We have a little bit of everything, but books are not our major thing.”

“Let me put it this way,” said Rabbi Boruch Klar, who operates Lubavitch Center Judaica in West Orange. “This store could not exist selling books alone.”

Joe Adler, proprietor of the Jewish Book Maven in East Hanover, with his in-home stock. Photo courtesy Joe Adler

Like Judaica Gallery and Chai Judaica, the Lubavitch Center has always sold books — along with housewares, jewelry, ritual objects, and more. Klar told NJJN that a books-only business model is not sustainable for Judaica retail. “The only places that still work like the old days are Brooklyn or Lakewood, because many Jews are looking for books for study,” he said. “Otherwise, I can’t see a stand-alone Jewish bookstore succeeding these days.”

That said, Joe Adler, an East Hanover resident who operates Jewish Book Maven, which combines online sales with a home store in East Hanover, believes his hybrid approach could be the next chapter of Jewish book shops.

The online portion of Adler’s business is associated with internet retailers and, and he sees “a strong demand for both new and old titles.” He keeps several hundred books in stock, along with a limited amount of Judaica, in his home store in East Hanover, which is open by appointment.

“I’ve found a lot are interested in antiquarian Jewish literature and books that were saved from the Holocaust,” said Adler. “I get private collections people want me to sell for them and put out feelers to acquire other collections I can sell from both the United States and abroad.”

Adler, 75, moved to Morris County in 2018 to be closer to his family, after a career as a teacher and then a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Albany, N.Y. He began collecting used Jewish books in 1993 while still working as a counselor; he had always been interested in Jewish books and was hoping to work in the industry after he retired. He began by acquiring used Jewish books and circulating book lists to various synagogues in the Albany area before becoming an early proponent of internet commerce just before 2000. Now he specializes in the purchasing of used Jewish books, markets his online inventory to scholars and others in the community, repairs damaged books, helps with online book searches, and manages his home store.

“I can get any book anyone wants,” he said.

Such a hybrid approach incorporates a personal touch not available to online shoppers, which Adler said brings the feel of an old-time Jewish bookstore to his customers.

“Many are still looking for that, and I want to be more than just an online bookseller.”

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