There are three used bookshops not far from the Carmel Market in the old part of Tel Aviv. They are all within a few steps of each other at one end of Allenby, clustered around the side street of Geulah. One had a hand-written sign saying it was closed for the Passover holidays, and the other, rather disappointingly, had a “For Rent” sign across its glass door. I did not hold much hope that we’d be in luck with the last one. Perhaps it had closed down? To our immense relief, it was open.
Bibliophile is aptly named — it is a book hunter’s paradise, in particular a polyglot one, with its teetering towers of volumes in Russian, German (and its medieval relative Yiddish), Spanish and Ladino (the Spanish counterpart of Yiddish), Romanian, Ukrainian, French, Ethiopian, Portuguese, besides English, Hebrew, and Arabic of course, and more besides. Within its cramped space of perhaps no more than 30 square meters, Bibliophile holds an unbelievable repository of the world’s literature in so many languages, reflecting the polyglot nature of the country itself.
With my dust allergy, I didn’t venture too far to squeeze myself along the narrow aisles, once I’d found a couple of English books by female authors that I’d not read before. They would do me for the return trip home. As I stood outside, waiting for M to explore to his heart’s content, a German tourist on a bike rode by and peered curiously into the shop’s narrow confines.
“Antiquariat?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I replied. It’s mostly second-hand books.”
“Where can I find an antiquariat?”
“Perhaps in Jaffa,” I said.
“You mean only the Arabs read?”
“I didn’t mean that. I thought you meant you were looking for antiques. Would you like to go in and see what it’s like?”
“No, I’m afraid the books will fall on me,” he said.
“I doubt it. Look, my husband is in there, and so far no book has fallen on him yet.”
And strangely, apropos of nothing, he asked if my native language was English, as we had been conversing in German. I said yes, and then he left, unimpressed by the precariously leaning stacks. Clearly he was no bibliophile.
Pinchas Mash’aniah (משעניה פנחס) the owner, has had this shop for over 50 years, perhaps ever since he came over from Damascus, Syria. In three months, he announced proudly, he turns 80 years old (he made us guess his age. He also made us guess where he was originally from. M guessed either Lebanon or Syria. M guessed correctly on both counts.)
“You’re the champion!” Pinchas chuckled, beaming at M.
Tacked on one pillar of the shop is an article about Pinchas in the Jerusalem Post, written decades ago (the black document posted to Pinchas’s left in the photo below). The article’s photo shows Pinchas in his late 30s, possibly early 40s. I cannot get near enough to read it nor to take a closer photograph of it. He looks younger than his years though, as I guessed he was about 75.
“Everyone in my family keeps telling me to stop,” he said. “But why should I? I love this shop. I love these books. What would I do at home? And I love to come here every day and meet all kinds of people. Just recently a very interesting thing happened to me.”
And he proceeded with all relish to tell me. “Just before Passover eve, a woman buys 200 shekels worth of books. Just then, a friend of hers walks by and invites her to have coffee. And off they go.
“It’s not until some time later when I was closing down that I notice she’s left her handbag. I try to see if there is a name or contact number inside, but there’s nothing, just her purse. It’s early closing time, because of the holiday, so reluctantly, I close the shop and put her handbag safely locked away.
“Two days later she comes into the shop, looking very anxious. “Did I leave my handbag here, by any chance?” she says.
“I produce the handbag, and tell her to look inside and check that everything is intact inside. She takes out 200 shekels (about 50 Euros). “You’ve already paid for the books,” I say.
“Oh no, this is for keeping the handbag safe,” she says.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that.”
She insists, but eventually realizes that I’m not about to relent. “Very well then. Thank you again with all my heart,” she says.
The following day she brings a bag with bottles of champagne and wine. “These you certainly cannot refuse,” she says.
“What can I say? Of course I accepted, but I was only doing what comes naturally.”
They don’t make booksellers like Pinchas Mash’aniah anymore. Nor do they make bookshops like Bibliophile with teetering stacks in narrow, dimly lit aisles anymore. And we bibliophiles are left all the poorer. How long will Bibliophile survive? As long as Pinchas Mash’aniah is alive and well, I pray. And as long as there are bibliophiles who like nothing better than to poke into dim, dusty Aladdin’s caves for undiscovered readable treasures. Long and well may Pinchas continue to live and thrive. And that goes for his beloved shop, Bibliophile, too. (I forgot to ask him how he feels about the ongoing tragedy in his hometown.)
(Interestingly and unintentionally, the books I bought were both about islands. Victoria Hislop’s The Island, on Crete, and Daína Chaviano’s Isla de los Amores Infinitos, translated as The Island of Eternal Love, on Cuba.)
Bibliophile (ביבליופיל) is on 44 Geulah Street, corner Allenby, Tel Aviv. Bibliophile also buys books — bring back books and get 50% of the purchase price.
Bibliophile is on the ground floor of a classic building from the early 20th century. There’s a trendy cafe next door, but we went to the unpretentious one across the street to have wonderful freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.