My first conscious memory of collecting began sometime in my early childhood when Kellogg’s graciously gifted me a shiny, blue Hot Wheels car at the bottom of my Frosted Flakes. “Collect them all!” the box advertised, successfully convincing my sister and I to eat our way through box after box of sugary corn flakes in the quest of a new toy. Perhaps it was my fascination with miniature objects or the lure of new Hot Wheels, but either way I was determined to have them all. Walter Benjamin would describe this hoarding as a “passion [bordering] on the chaos of memories” (Benjamin 60). For Danny Levine, a fourth generation at J. Levine Books & Judaica, his collection of memories is nearly 125 years in the making. From its origins in Europe to its current location in vibrant Manhattan, J. Levine Books continues to passionately serve the their customers, inviting them to browse their own carefully crafted collection. Although its bright and busy storefront advertises the prominent role it plays in serving the Jewish community, the interior of the store reveals a much more complex nature, one where importance is placed on family and maintaining tradition.
Levine’s emphasis on the importance of family can be seen in an analysis of the store’s floor plan. Below, you’ll find a replica of the merchandise layout, courteously provided by Danny Levine. In order to see how J. Levine’s focus on tradition and memories is evident throughout their store, follow the arrows below, making sure to hover over the sections with red circles.
Like any great collector, J. Levine organizes their products in a specific way, allowing customers to get the most out of their experience. From its perch on 5 West 30th Street, it’s immediately obvious to any passersby that J. Levine celebrates and upholds Judaism. Coming in the front door, a window display features a large, inflatable menorah and mannequins dressed in traditional Jewish garb posed next to more traditional Jewish collectibles. Behind all this, a life size photo of Danny Levine, his arms spread out in an opening embrace, welcomes visitors to the store. It’s clear that J. Levine poses itself as an oasis for the Jewish community, one where everyone can feel welcome and wanted to create their own tradition and memories.
Danny’s passion for family and the memories associated with his store were apparent to me when I spoke on the phone with him a week before publishing this post. Although I do not practice Judaism, nor was I interested in buying anything when I called the store, he was genuinely excited to help me with my research. Though our conversation only lasted a few minutes, it was obvious to me that his store means a great deal to him. His lineage is a source of pride for him and his family, and the layout of the store emphasizes this familial passion.
Entering the front door, one is instantly greeted with tables of art and gifts. Here, the customer is able to peruse adornments and trimmings for their home that serves as a reminder of Judaism’s rich past. Just to the left of these tables hangs Mezuzahs, parchments inscribed with specific Hebrew versus from the Torah, a physical symbol of a family’s faith.
Down this same wall are the shelves holding candlesticks and Kiddish cups. By following this path, it’s easy to notice what the products have in common: they’re all to be used by a family. The art and collectibles, Mezuzah and Kiddish cups are meant to be enjoyed and utilized by multiple people. With these products, the Jewish faith becomes celebrated. Following the path, you’ll next pass by a bookshelf housing Seasonal and New Judaica. Located in the middle of the store across from the Kiddish cups and candlesticks, these are the first set of books you encounter in the store. From there, the next section includes books on Hebrew, Kids, and Kabbalah. In the back, Women and Jewish Law reside. Directly behind them is the Ketubah Center and Simcha, a place where couples are able to get what they need to begin their new journey in life together.
The categories all appeal to a desire for a need or knowledge in specific branch of Judaism, a contrast to the more general items in the front. Opposite them, Bibles, Prayer Books, Toys, and History line the wall, with Talits and Kippots further down. Finally, having come almost a full circle, cookbooks and Introduction to Judaism appear on your right while the register appears on your left. Interestingly, the first set of books the customer reaches are meant to introduce and expose the reader to Judaism as a whole. The books towards the back of the store become increasingly more specific, beginning to shy away from the family and focus more on the individual. However, nearing the end of the path the focus shifts again, redirecting the emphasis back to the familial unit.
Levine operates under an organized chaos; shelves are brimming with books, tables are buried under home goods and art. Memories from the past 120 years are apparent in every corner. Following the store through the path above, the customer is first shown items representing the importance of the Jewish family. Kiddish cups and Mezuzahs are physical reminders and vestibules for making memories, and New Judaica reveal a frontlist, enticing consumers to add the new and fresh to their existing collection. The back of the store can be seen as the opportunity to express oneself, adding fresh material to the Jewish community. Including subjects such as Women, Jewish law, and Children allows J. Levine to serve a diverse clientele, one where any denomination of Judaism can feel welcome. At the end of the path, tradition and family makes itself apparent again. Kippots and cookbooks reinforce the passion J. Levine has for family values and tradition through the physical act of following Jewish customs. Although the store is small, it is packed with memories, allowing consumers a place to become as passionate as J. Levine about their Jewish heritage.
Tim Cresswell claims that “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world” (Cresswell 11). At J. Levine, visitors are able to recognize the passion the store has for family and tradition and learn about Judaism, whether it be a general concept or a more detailed branch of the religion. Analyzing the floor plan of the store allows us to understand the construction of memories and the importance of family in Judaism.
I no longer remember what became of those Hot Wheels cars I was determined to have so long ago, and perhaps its for the best. Collections lose their meaning once passion is lost, and I would no longer have any use for them. An undying passion for family and memories is what has allowed J. Levine to flourish for over 120 years, giving them a place where their customers are able to celebrate and understand Judaism.
Courtesy of Danny Levine and powered by ThingLink
Artwork and Furry Family Member, http://sideways.nyc/2013/09/j-levine-books-judaica/
Images appearing in floorplan, http://sideways.nyc/2013/09/j-levine-books-judaica/ and http://www.levinejudaica.com/catalog/index.php
Danny Levine and J. Levine Books & Judaica, http://www.levinejudaica.com/catalog/index.php
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schoken Books, 1955.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.