Since the dawn of time humans have always had a fascination with predicting the future. We’ve employed a plethora of techniques, some more credible than others, in our quest of determining the undeterminable. Chain and independent bookstores have been subjected to this treatment, scrutinized and analyzed by the literary elite in the hopes of cracking the code in determining which one will come out on top. It’s a boxing match; each side dancing precariously around the ring, throwing lithe right hooks while simultaneously trying to dodge injury. J. Levine Books & Judaica has seen its own time inside the ring and has remained relatively unscathed. With Amazon and other big named bookstores carrying Judaic sections, they’ve maintained their helm as the premiere supplier for the Jewish community for over 125 years. Although we may not know the future of J. Levine, understanding its extensive history will at least help us appreciate its present position in the book industry.
Having an independent bookstore nestled on the main street of my sleepy college town, a Barnes and Noble in the next town over, and the power of Amazon at my fingertips, I am given a variety of options for all my literature needs. Personally, I find myself drawn to the independent, brick-and-mortar bookstore. Diving through a bin of dog-eared titles with ridiculously inexpensive price tags feels like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, searching laboriously for the Holy Grail of pen-and-ink classics. The customers of J. Levine Books & Judaica often find themselves on a similar mission, sifting through the wide variety of merchandise in search of a new read, dreidel, or Ketubah L’Chaim for their upcoming wedding. While most of the store’s customers are either Jewish or in the process of converting to Judaism, the store’s diverse merchandise offers those who do not practice the chance to explore the religion and understand it fully.
J. Levine’s origins began in Europe, in the small nation of Lithuania, where Hirsh Lany acted as a distributor of Torahs and other religious articles. Finally in 1905, due to the depletion of the Jewish community, Lany moved his family and business to the Lower East Side of New York, continuing to distribute his products. Lany could not have picked a better home for his company: the Lower East Side at the turn of the century was quickly turning into the capital of Jewish America. Businesses, libraries, places of worship and entertainment were all run by members of the Jewish community, solidifying its niche in the city as a cornerstone of religious diversity. Traveling to the Lower East Side in 1905 could not include at least one interaction with a Jewish business owner, resident, or consumer, as it held the greatest concentration in Jewish life the world had seen in almost several centuries.
The Lower East Side’s culturally diverse population during this time was a direct correlation of its overall size. More than 700 people occupied an acre, making it the most crowded neighborhood in the world at the turn of the twentieth century. As a result, health standards were at a minimum, clean water was scarce, and thieves and con artists ran ramped. However, it is clear that J. Levine found economic success even in such unfavorable conditions. Their products created a connection between the new and old world, allowing the readers to loose themselves in the text before them, shutting out the hustle and bustle and streams of raw sewage in the streets of the Lower East Side.
Despite the less than savory living conditions, the store’s first major change began in 1920 when the second generation of Levine included embroidered and sewn religious articles in his inventory. This shift in inventory marked the store as a major manufacturer of embroidered products. Although subtle, this change became a stepping stone for other improvements and additions. The 1940s also brought change to the store; the third generation expanded J. Levine into a sort of department store for the Synagogue, school, and Jewish community. Here, their first attack on their competitors began, allowing them to grab the upper hand in the fight to maintain their stance and expand their clientele.
J. Levine Judaica saw its biggest change when it moved its store location from the Lower East Side to Midtown permanently in 1990. Danny Levine, the fourth generation of this illustrious book selling family, was the major motivator behind the move. Midtown, the heart of Manhattan, offered the Levines the opportunity to further expand their business, now easily accessible to tourists and locals alike, thanks to its location just off 5th Avenue. Here, while they were no longer in the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, J. Levine was still able to encompass the nostalgia of the community by expanding their merchandise yet again to include items such as toys and videos. Danny Levine could not have picked a better or location or timing for the move. Just before the turn of the century Midtown was faced with a boom in terms of commercial success; facing a redevelopment itself, the neighborhood found itself in possession of bringing in more business that would appeal to its characteristically slightly reserved and tourist driven population. The new store was within walking distance of the Lower East Side but now in the heart of a highly trafficked neighborhood housing Times Square and the Empire State Building.
Times Square, New York City
With the new millennium quickly approaching, J. Levine began to incorporate even more items reflecting the changing styles and technology of America. Their inventory started including everything one would need to host a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, in accordance to their religious text. To serve an even greater area, Danny Levine produced the catalogue “Living Jewish: The Ultimate Judaica Buying Guide,” highlighting the store’s unique products marketed towards clients near and far. And, with the age of the Internet upon them, the Levines expanded even further, “opening” a second location on the Internet. Since branching online, J. Levine has seen a 20 percent increase in sales and increased traffic to its website, thanks to the aide of Google. Their Made in Israel Store tab offers a variety of items produced and imported from the country. Without even leaving America, one is able to discover a different part of the world simply by visiting a local, independent bookstore. As I detailed in my previous post, J. Levine is now situated in the center of an ethnically and commercially diverse neighborhood, not unlike the one it started in a century prior.
J. Levine Books & Judaica as it currently stands today
In his essay on defining place, Tim Cresswell shows us how places with “even bare essentials have history,” whether or not it is obvious or not (Cresswell 2). The Levine family has put their personal mark on their own place, as Cresswell suggests, by transforming it with the edition of their own personal style, easily recognizable even in the bustling neighborhood of Midtown (Cresswell 2). Through multiple renovations completed throughout the years and generational shift of owners, J. Levine has highlighted Cresswall’s claim that “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world” (Cresswall 11). Visitors to J. Levine learn not just from the books, but from the place they visit as well. In this they have formed a community, one that Laura Miller defines as “[implying] social bonds based on the affective ties and mutual support” (Miller 119). Even for me, someone who does not subscribe to Judiasm, can appreciate the fact that in the store I will learn about this particular part of the world I am not familiar with through the space it offers me.
J. Levine Books & Judaica entered into the vicious ring of bookstores nearly 125 years ago. Today, with the fourth and fifth generation of Levines at the helm, they’ve managed to make it past the first few rounds of the match, dodging the attacks of the chains and dominating force of Amazon, even managing to throw a few hits themselves. While the fight between bookstores is not likely to end in a knockout, holding one’s own ground is imperative. The exploration of the past and the speculation of the future are important in understanding the importance a place has on the present.
Made in Israel Store http://www.levinejudaica.com/catalog/?cPath=37_112
Google Maps: Times Square, New York City, J. Levine Books & Judaica
Manhattan NY Bits http://www.nybits.com/manhattan/
J. Levine Judaica LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/company/j-levine-judaica
Danny Levine LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/pub/danny-levine/7/3b3/150
J. Levine Books & Judaica: In the Media http://www.levinejudaica.com/catalog/in-the-media-i-18.html
Library of Congress, Immigration http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/polish6.html
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Miller, Laura. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.