Doina Bryskin arrived at Judaica Classics, a Jewish book and gift shop on the Upper East Side, Monday morning an hour before the store’s official opening time and went right to work, unpacking cartons of menorahs and Chanukah books that had arrived over the weekend.
Later in the day, said Bryskin, who has owned the shop — five years in its present location, and 25 years in the lobby of nearby Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun before that — she would write some checks, pack up some orders and maybe tidy up the 400-square-foot space.
All in a day’s work at a Manhattan Jewish bookstore, increasingly a dying breed.
Reports last week that crosstown rival West Side Judaica will close its doors later this year has brought increased attention to the problems — especially rising rent and competition from Internet sales — that are making it difficult for such niche businesses to stay open.
Bryskin said about 10 Jewish bookstores have opened, then gone out of business, in Manhattan during her three decades at Judaica Classics. The shuttering of 83-year-old West Side Judaica would leave her business and J. Levine Books & Judaica, in Midtown, as the only free-standing Jewish book and gift shops in the borough. (That figure does not count such stores housed in museums and other Jewish institutions, and at a dwindling number of synagogues.)
The outlook for these businesses is more robust in neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, like Borough Park and Flatbush and Kew Gardens Hills, which are home to growing Jewish populations, mostly Orthodox.
Bryskin, a Hungarian-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, worked as a biochemical researcher before taking off a decade to raise a family then deciding to go into another field. “I’m self-taught,” she said. She said “it becomes harder each year” to own a Jewish bookstore. More people are turning to amazon.com and similar websites for books and other gifts, and the profit margin on books has steadily decreased.
She’s trimmed the number of books she carries – mostly cookbooks, prayer books and copies of the Torah – to a few hundred, and concentrated on the Judaica items that line her crowded shelves.
The heart of her trade is the unique items, like designer candlesticks and challah boards and ketubot — that she finds on annual scouting visits to artisans in Israel, France and Italy. “I have pretty good taste,” she said. “I have a discerning eye.”
Mezuzahs are her best seller. “I have more than 200 styles.”
Bryskin’s store had to vacate its longtime spot at Kehilath Jeshurun on short notice because of renovations in the building five years ago, Bryskin said. All her stock went into storage. About a month later a fire gutted the synagogue. All her belongings were safe. “Otherwise, all my stuff would have gotten ruined,” she said. “God works in mysterious ways.”
Within a few months she reopened, in an empty space on Lexington Avenue, now flanked by a dry cleaners and pizzeria.
Business, she said, “goes up and down.” Chanukah is her busiest season.
To stay in business while other Jewish book stores have closed, Bryskin has instituted several cost-cutting measures. She’s Judaica Classics’ only paid staff. “I work six days a week. I economize on everything I can.” Like cleaning. “I do my own windows.”
After an hour answering a visitor’s questions Monday morning, she went back to work, checking her emails. “Maybe,” she said, “an order came in that I have to ship.”
Text by Steve Lipman
Photos by Nora Wesson