In the Amazon Age

In the Amazon Age

Jewish bookstores write new chapters to compete with Internet

The books are in the back at J. Levine Books and Judaica. At Teaneck’s Judaica House, they are off to one side.

Before finding the volumes of Jewish titles at J. Levine in midtown Manhattan, customers encounter a rotating display of mezuzot on the left, followed by shelves of kiddush cups and a rack featuring a Hebrew-language version of the wordplay game Bananagrams. Sitting on the colorful shelves to the right are kippot, tallitot, and assorted Jewish toys.

In late summer at Judaica House, customers are as likely to see a sukkah in the front window as a stack of books. The entire left side of the Cedar Lane store is made up of all manner of Judaica to meet most every need.

The books are still there, but they are no longer the centerpiece.

Traditional bookstores, like J. Levine and Judaica House, are wrestling with an adapt-or-die reality as they compete in the Age of Amazon. The brick-and-mortar shops have developed a variety of strategies to stay profitable and deal with declining book sales.

Some bookstores have had some success in turning around losses. A number are beginning to rely more on Judaica than on books, once their primary staple, as they seek to maintain a steady stream of loyal local customers. Judaica House adopted that business model long before the Internet and Amazon got into the act, and it appears to be weathering the storm better than most.

“At the beginning it was a disaster,” Daniel Levine, the fourth-generation owner of J. Levine, said of the onset of Internet (read Amazon) competition. “Now the Internet is only helping us. All of our new business comes just from Google. It has helped us remain a player in the book world.”

Levine said his business dropped 18 percent from 2000 to 2005, as customers moved to Amazon. Since then, however, the store’s sales have risen 20 percent, as Levine acclimated to the new environment of online commerce. As more people began using Google to find bookstores, the mid-Manhattan location helped increase the traffic to J. Levine.

Aside from the increased traffic to the store’s website, Levine attributes the rise in business to a growing emphasis on selling Judaica. He said that ketubot, tallitot, kiddush cups, and the like sell at a higher profit margin than Bibles or the latest book on Israel.

Not everyone is as fortunate.

For Rosenblum’s World of Judaica in Skokie, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, focusing on Judaica has not offset the deep cuts made necessary by the recent economic downturn. In 2005, the store had nine employees; today, it has five. Likewise, Rosenblum’s cut much of its advertising budget in recent years, said owner Avi Fox.

“We can’t buy books for the prices Amazon is selling them,” he said.

He is more concerned, however, about competition from such Jewish book publishers as the Orthodox-targeted ArtScroll Mesorah Publications. ArtScroll sells books wholesale to Jewish bookstores, but it also sells directly from its website, offering online buyers discounts of up to 30 percent and free shipping.

ArtScroll’s management said that by showcasing its offerings in catalogues and online, the company actually is supporting retail stores in Jewish population centers. Its co-founder, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, said ArtScroll offers steep discounts to its retailers and that “bookstores can always give a better price than we do.”

Another strategy is employed by the Boston area’s Israel Book Shop, which is offsetting a drop in sales through an affiliation with its own New Jersey-based Jewish publisher, Israel Book Shop Publications, in Lakewood. The two businesses are separate, but the store promotes the publisher on its website, and the publisher offers discounts to the store.

Israel Book Shop’s owner, Chaim Dovek, said having the brick-and-mortar store is a “huge advantage” because it allows him to store inventory for the website, and serves as a spot for customers to “socialize and browse.” In fact, he said, the majority of the shop’s sales come from the store, not from its website.

These owners also compete with Amazon through their own websites, but some of those efforts fall short.

West Side Judaica, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, caters to a cross-section of the Jewish community. It aims to stay afloat the old-fashioned way – by relying on local customers and endorsements from local synagogues. The store shut down its website because it was not sufficiently profitable. Owner Yakov Salczer said the store’s sales have declined 30 percent during the past five years. He has not lost hope, however, despite the tough climate.

“Hashem has a plan,” Salczer said. “Customers come to me because they want to support me. The only reason I’m still in business is because I have local customers supporting me [and] support from the local synagogues.”

According to the director of the Jewish Book Council, Carolyn Hessel, however, today’s bookstores will survive in the future only by investing in online commerce.

“They have to turn toward the online presence,” Hessel said. “I don’t think the brick-and-mortar store is as important. As the generation that grew up with the brick-and-mortar store dies out, you’re going to see less and less brick-and-mortar stores.”

During the past few decades, Manhattan has seen a sharp decline in the number of Jewish bookstores. Levine noted that at least four local Judaica stores have closed since the 1990s. Before World War II, he said, there were dozens of such stores in Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. Now only two remain: his and West Side Judaica.

Judaica House’s owner Rueben Nayowitz is not as certain. Closed stores do not tell the whole story, he said. And it may be the suppliers, not the retailers, who face the greater challenge from the Internet.

“A dozen stores might have closed in Manhattan,” he said, “but they closed for reasons that have little to do with the current situation. The real issue is what effect are Internet sales, and specifically Amazon, having on retailing as we know it. I highly recommend that people read Brad Stone’s article in BloombergBusinessweek before formulating any final opinions.” (The story was in the Sept. 28, 2011 issue and is easily google-able.)

“In the 1980s and 1990s, purchasing was fueled by ‘debt purchasing,'” Nayowitz said. “Everybody had access to cheap credit and bought, and bought, and bought, until that bubble burst. Now, partly as a result of the fallout from that, buying is fueled by ‘cheap.’ Today, little regard is paid to value, selection, quality, or loyalty. Cheap rules.

“In addition, the Internet adds a dimension – easy and seemingly unlimited access – that, possibly more than price, and certainly together with price, is creating an insurmountable problem for many traditional retailers.”

Yet, Nayowitz has more faith than Hessel in the so-called brick-and-mortar stores.

“The one bright spot, if you can call it that, for traditional retailers is that the Internet has not yet been able to provide easy ‘discovery,'” Nayowitz said. “Since it’s difficult for the Internet to effectively introduce new product, customers, in many cases, will continue to shop in traditional stores, as long as they are available. The really big problem is that, in the final analysis, ‘discovery’ poses a greater existential threat to manufacturers and suppliers than it does to stores. As suppliers begin to disappear, the whole Internet issue becomes meaningless.”

Levine hopes the reputation afforded by his 120-year-old shop’s history will help keep it alive for generations to come. Although he sees the value of buying Judaica on the Internet, he still thinks customers will continue to appreciate the advantages of a traditional Jewish bookstore.

“Can you see the ketubah you’re buying online?” he said. “How can you figure out what the real color is, what the feel is? How can you feel a tallis made out of silk? Are these the types of things that people are going to give up forever? I don’t think people will really do that.”

“Right now, the only way stores like the Judaica House will survive is by offering necessary products and services that can be bought and sold at prices that are relatively competitive with online prices,” Nayowitz said. “That might sound easy, but as Amazon grows it is becoming more and more difficult. Core items that were once the foundation of our business – books, CDs, etc. – are starting to take a back seat to products that cannot be duplicated or provided on line. Are there enough of these products and services to sustain a business like ours? I don’t know. I certainly hope so, but only time will tell.

“I would also like to believe that at some point the Internet shopping experience will become less satisfying, and people will return to traditional outlets. If Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his way, that will not happen. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Asked what he means by “products that cannot be duplicated or provided on line,” the Teaneck store owner said, “Several obvious services and products come to mind, like restaurants, car repair shops, etc. However, I was referring to items and services that are specific to stores such as ours. We’re careful to restrict our gift items to artists that either protect stores like ours – for example, by not allowing stores, including online stores, to discount their products – and artists, mostly Israeli, who are too small to have an online presence.

“With books, we have become much more selective in the titles we carry and have begun restricting stock to titles we know can sell competitively with online stores. That, however, is becoming more and more difficult as Amazon becomes increasingly predatory with its pricing policies.”

“Thank God there is still Shabbes,” Nayowitz added, “and there are still s’forim [Jewish legal and ethical tomes, from chumashim, to Talmud tractates, to rabbinic responsa, to ethical literature, most of them written in Hebrew or Aramaic] that are appropriate and useful for Jewish homes in this area. There also are juvenile and educational materials that are not yet – emphasis on ‘not yet’ – discounted on line, and will not be available as e-books for the foreseeable future. We also provide services that although frequently available on line can be difficult to negotiate for the average consumer – bentcher orders, for example, or yarmulka orders, gold stamping, personalized invitations, etc. – and we’re able to offer prices that are competitive.”

JTA Wire Service contributed to this report.

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