‘What characterizes our customers is open-mindedness, curiosity and a willingness to be surprised,” said Yonatan Brezner, who owns, manages and curates Adraba Books with Rachel Wygoda-Sofrin.
Jerusalem book store Adraba Books celebrates 10 years
The store, which is located at 5 Ben Maimon Boulevard in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Adraba, which has about one-third books in English and the rest in Hebrew, is an oasis of fine literature and tranquility in the capital.
Full disclosure: I have been a frequent patron of the store since it opened, as have my children.
Adraba doesn’t try to compete with the big chain retailers, but simply features a dazzling selection of books on virtually every subject, most of which can’t be found anyplace else in Jerusalem or, often, in Israel. There is fiction, both contemporary and classic, poetry, graphic novels, art books, children’s books, history, biography, philosophy and more.
“It’s been a nice ride,” said Brezner, who studied painting before opening the store. His partner at the store, Wygoda-Sofrin, was a sociology student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“When we opened it, we knew it wasn’t exactly a sure thing to launch a bookstore these days,” he said. “But we thought, we’re young; if it doesn’t work out, we can do something else with our lives.”
Although establishing a bookstore in the Kindle era wasn’t easy, the store has a loyal customer base, which knows that Adraba carries books it won’t find elsewhere.
On a recent visit, as I browsed the store, I noted its unusually broad selection, including four different titles by Flannery O’Connor, which I doubt you would find at any bookstore in New York other than the Strand.
On a display table are a disparate and intriguing collection of titles, among them Nancy Fraser’s The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born; Venus & Aphrodite: History of a Goddess by Bettany Hughes; Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud; Every So Often a Talking Dog Appears by Smiljan Radic; The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal by Martha C. Nussbaum; Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore by Lawrence Millman; The Library Book by Susan Orlean; and Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener.
The store is not huge, so choosing which books make the cut is “the biggest challenge and the most fun,” he said. “We don’t want to waste space on books we don’t care about.”
The selection is “basically high-brow, but we want to make it fun,” and customers are treated with the utmost respect.
BREZNER SAYS that the store attracts not only residents of the surrounding Rehavia and Talbiyeh neighborhoods, but people from all over the city, including Arabs and ultra-Orthodox.
Indeed, during the brief time I spent in the store during our interview, among the customers were a woman from Asia looking for books by Carl Jung, an ultra-Orthodox man dressed all in black who wanted to buy a history book, and a denim-clad student who said that he had traveled all over the world but had never found a bookstore he enjoyed more.
“The store is a dialogue between us and the customers,” Brezner said, explaining that books that have been strongly recommended by its patrons enhance the store.
When I told Brezner, for example, that Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was the book I loved most as a child, he looked into it and has kept it in stock ever since. This has happened over and over with many customers, he said.
“Sometimes if there is a section or topic that someone is really into it, we’ll ask them, ‘What are we missing?’” he said.
Brezner and Wygoda-Sofrin enjoy getting to know their customers in a very old-fashioned way and make meaningful recommendations.
“It’s like a shidduch,” he said. “You show them the right book at the right time.”
Over the years, thanks to their carefully targeted recommendations, I have become acquainted with the work of writers I now love, including Lucia Berlin, Hiromi Kawakami and Daniil Kharms.
The store is a welcoming place for children, and the children’s section features both recent books and classics. The classics include titles by Dr. Seuss, of course, but also authors such as Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine), Astrid Lindgren and Erich Kastner. The store always features beautifully illustrated picture books, including Shaun Tan’s The Arrival; Small in the City by Sydney Smith; and Just Because by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault.
“We carry classics and books that will become classics,” he said.
Once or twice a month, Adraba hosts an event in the evenings, usually a reading and/or a talk by a translator. These events are sometimes in English. One such recent event was a meeting with Samuel Thrope, who translated the Iranian writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s The Israeli Republic into English.
The store does carry used books and will give store credit for books customers bring in, but, says Brezner, “We are selective with used books.”
If the store does not carry a certain title, they will order it for customers, if they can.
Brezner emphasizes that while his prices may sometimes be slightly higher than those at the big bookstores (NIS 10 or so) on the few books Adbraba carries that are also available at these chains, “Our customers feel it’s worth making an investment in this kind of store. They see the value in supporting a local business and a small bookstore…. We have a good relationship with publishers, who have a warm spot for small bookstores.”
There will be a party to celebrate Adraba’s 10th anniversary, but not until June, so that the attendees can spill out into the street in warm weather.
Brezner reminisced about the store’s opening event in 2010, recalling that a customer noted during the party that the news of J. D. Salinger’s death had just been announced. While the customers mourned Salinger’s demise, they realized that the offbeat spirit of his work was honored by Adraba.
While not everyone will appreciate the books he sells, Brezner says, “You don’t need everyone. What we have found is a certain amount of people who share our vision and get what we’re doing.”
For more information: adrababooks.co.il, (02) 567-1266.