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Hard Times for the Upper West Side’s Venerable Judaica Store

West Side Judaica has been a fixture in Manhattan for 80 years. Now, rising rent and online competition threaten its future.

Zachary Schrieber
October 07, 2014
Zachary Schrieber
Sukkah decorations among other religious items for sale last week.Zachary Schrieber
Zachary Schrieber
Sukkah decorations among other religious items for sale last week.Zachary Schrieber

In the 1980s, the southeastern corner of Broadway and 88th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side hosted a camera store, a liquor store, a pharmacy, and West Side Judaica. Most of those businesses are long gone. Today a TD Bank encompasses what used to be four separate storefronts; a ladies’ hat store called La-Di-Da closed its doors just a few weeks ago.

But West Side Judaica remains, after eight decades in business, selling Jewish items ranging from yarmulkes to religious artwork, Shari Lewis DVDs to silver kiddush cups, educational children’s toys in Hebrew to the writings of the Slonimer Rebbe. It serves a wide range of New York’s Jewish community with a rare sense of openness; it’s the kind of place where you might find an Orthodox sales clerk showing a liberal Jewish woman how to wrap her first tallit. “The store is a fixture of the community,” said Rabbi Moshe Grussgott of Congregation Ramath Orah on the Upper West Side.

How much longer the store can go on, however, is another question. Rising rents and increased competition from online vendors means that business is less profitable than it once was. The High Holidays are always a good season; last week, for instance, while shofars still hung from the ceiling, the store was selling items for Sukkot: schach (bamboo branches) and other things to decorate a sukkah, as well as lulavim and etrogim. Owner Yaakov Saltzer told me on a recent visit that sales have “picked up a little in the last couple months, not including the usual bump for the holidays.” But still, he says, West Side Judaica—one of just two Judaica stores left in Manhattan, and the only one on the heavily Jewish Upper West Side—is “just staying afloat.”

West Side Judaica opened in 1934 and was later sold in the 1960s, before Saltzer purchased the store in 1980. When Saltzer took over, West Side Judaica was literally half the store it is today: Sales were good in the 1980s and he moved the store to a new location, double the size, in the middle of the block. At that time, “we were one of a dozen or so [Judaica] stores in Manhattan. Now it’s just us and J. Levine,” he said, referring to a bookstore and Judaica shop some 60 blocks away on West 30th Street.

In the 1980s, Saltzer says, he was paying around $1,500 per month in rent. Now, he says he pays more than 10 times that. But he does not blame anyone for the increases: “It’s nobody’s fault, it just is what it is. The same thing is happening all over the city.”

But the dramatic rent increases are not the only problem. Like many bricks-and-mortar stores, West Side Judaica has fallen victim to the robust growth in online shopping. When I asked Saltzer where people go to buy their books nowadays, he pointed to his computer: “The Internet.” (West Side Judaica does not maintain an online retail space.)

But the store has also suffered from increased competition from an unexpected place: When the Museum of Jewish Heritage opened in the late 1990s, its vast resources dramatically hurt book sales at West Side Judaica. “I was the only one with the scholarly books [on the Holocaust],” said Saltzer. “Professors knew to come here. Now they go there, or they get them online.”

In 2012, the Abraham Joshua Heschel School moved its early-childhood and middle schools from around the corner to its new campus on 61st Street. The school still supports the store and encourages its students and their families to shop at West Side Judaica. But the move cost the store quite significantly. “Parents would stop in and buy something when they came to pick up their children,” said Erica Saltzer, Yaakov’s mother. “Now many have little reason to be in the area and no longer come in.”

The store is clean and tidy, but there are indications that this congruence of negative factors has hit the store pretty hard. A giant “50% off sale” sign for books is taped to the front window, in an attempt to compete with the steep discounts of online retailers. Another sign asks people to “please shop local.” The heavy foot traffic on Broadway after work has dropped in recent years and now yields just a few walk-ins, which Saltzer claims are not enough to “sustain” the store. The trend lines are clear to see.

For the time being, West Side Judaica still has a dedicated clientele of local synagogues and Jewish organizations. Grussgott, for instance, was purchasing yahrzeit candles and white yarmulkes for some members of his synagogue when I visited. “We generally get all our Judaica needs from them,” he told me. “It’s nice because it’s a neighborhood store.” “There are still some regulars,” said Saltzer, who have kept the West Side Judaica alive during these tough times. A family called the Kukoffs, who after decades on the Upper West Side now live in the Upper Hudson Valley area, still drive two-and-a-half hours to come to the city every few weeks. “Every time we visit the city we always make sure to stop by West Side Judaica to visit and buy something,” Mr. Kukoff told me. On this trip, they purchased a Conservative luach (a calendar with the times and dates of Jewish holidays) and a Jewish Museum calendar.

Saltzer and the rest of the staff are Orthodox, but he does his best to ensure that the diverse community of Jews on the Upper West Side is properly catered to. A study from 2011 showed that 13 percent of Jews in the area identify as Orthodox, but 21 percent identify as Reform and 20 percent as Conservative. Robert Owen, an accountant, and Daniella Kolodny, a Conservative rabbi, were visiting from London for a few days for a bar mitzvah and stopped in. She had frequented the store when she lived on the Upper West Side and noted how this store differs from the Judaica houses in London. “West Side is a great bookstore,” Kolodny said. “In London it’s only Orthodox items, but here they have a real diversity of books.” Although many shelves of West Side Judaica are filled with Talmudic texts, the store also sells English texts on Jewish philosophy and feminism. In one corner is a rack of tallitot, which includes a pink tallit. “Many women throughout history have worn the tallit,” Saltzer told me proudly. “Anyone who wants to practice Judaism, we got it.” Drawers are filled with yarmulkes and other small religious articles. Shofars hang from the ceiling. Silver Kiddush cups and menorahs line one wall while the other contains nearly every Jewish book imaginable. On the counter there is some artisanal honey from Israel. The price reads: “$8.99. For you, special price: $7.00.”

Gloria Kauffman, a well-dressed woman in her 70s, is a regular; she came in as she does every holiday season to purchase cards and gifts for her many grandchildren. Tommy Vance, an unaffiliated Jew in his late 20s, went in looking to purchase a mezuzah for a wedding gift but left with a menorah instead. “The staff could not have been more helpful,” he told me. “I left learning more about Judaism than I have in a long time.”

A handsome man named Aron, wearing a stylish gray suit and slicked-back hair but calling himself a Hasid, entered the store “just to say hello.” He told me that he usually comes in every day for mincha and considers the store a “great resource,” as West Side Judaica is the “only religious book store” in the area. “I buy all my Jewish books here, never online.” In addition, Aron said that, after years of living in New York with no connection to Judaism, “the brothers in the store have helped me come back to Judaism.”

Nearly all the staff is part of one large extended family. Yaakov’s brother and brother-in-law work there, and his wife is the bookkeeper. His mother works the register. He has five children and quite a few grandchildren. When I asked how many of them work in the store, Saltzer responded, “none,” before he smiled and added optimistically: “Maybe when things pick up a little.”

llow him on Twitter @zschrieber.

Zack Schrieber is an intern at Tablet Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @zschrieber.

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