American Dream Comes True in Manhattan: Humble Beginnings to Thriving Bookstore in Midtown
Back in 1890, Hirsch Lany, a religious scribe in Lithuania began the company now known as J. Levine Books and Judaica. He distributed copies of the Torah and religious articles in Europe before immigrated to New York City’s Lower East Side, in 1905 where he started what would become a thriving family business spanning over one hundred and twenty years, and five generations.
The store is still, first and foremost, a family-run business. The employees introduce themselves not only by their name, but also their generation. It’s a small personal touch, but communicates to visitors a much more personal atmosphere when stepping into their store. They have also implemented this into their website and social media outlets to further convey this sense of closeness with customers no matter how far away they may be. This sense of family and tradition conveyed by the store assists customers in being included not only in the history of their family, but their “place” as well.
Their store is located in Midtown Manhattan, a booming metropolis of tourist attractions and international business; although, that isn’t the company’s original location. They started out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in 1905 and remained at that location until the opening of their Midtown location in 1986. Today, New York City’s Lower East Side is much more up-scale than it was in the early 1900’s. As Tim Cresswell writes in Defining Place, “towards the southern tip of Manhattan and to the east of center is an area – a place – known as the Lower East Side. This is an area which has been known as a place of successive immigrant groups – Irish, Jewish, German, Italian, Eastern European, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Chinese.” Cresswell also explains how a sense of place is dependent on the changing history and general feel of a location, but its the social and economic history as well. The history of a “place” changes as time goes on, although it helps to shape the historical foundation of the location that its in.
Additionally, an article entitled Jewish Bookstores of the Old East Side, by The Spectator was published in 1906 which discussed Jewish and Yiddish literary outlets in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Admittedly the article is extremely biased and makes use of popular stereotypes of the time; however, it gives some helpful insight into the neighborhood dynamic at the time. In a small introduction produced by The Book Peddler, the publishing magazine this article was reprinted by, the reader is told that “the Lower East side harbored more bookstores per capita—and more people ready to talk about books—than any other neighborhood in New York! Reading his account, it is little wonder that 86 years later so many Yiddish bookstores are still to be found among the heirs of the original immigrant population”. These heirs populating the area J. Levine and Judaica started in were heavily “bookish”. The article goes on to describe the neighborhood as a primarily Yiddish speaking community, so the prevalence of books in the language were primarily found in this part of New York.
Literature was made more accessible to those speaking Yiddish at the time, and it wasn’t all Jewish. Certain stores had Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Dante, Shelley, etc. There were, of course, religious texts, but the Jewish community at the time was more interested in the availability of texts in a language more widely understood than English in an immigrant community. There is still a large Jewish community in New York City today and although it is no longer on the Lower East Side, and J. Levine and Judaica is no stranger to it. Throughout their history they have worked with their community to help wherever needed, even in providing textbooks to schools. J. Levine and Judaica added books as a way to spur more business, although with book sales dropping somewhat in recent years, they have taken the backseat to their Judaica items in the store.
As times have changed, so must business tactics. J. Levine Books and Judaica began as a continuation of Lany’s work abroad, but with the addition of his son-in-law, J. Levine, it soon expanded to include a variety of different products including embroidery and sewn religious articles. More recent generations have included the implementation of more “modern” products and patterns including singing dreidels, and Mickey Mouse Yarmulkes. On their website they provide a documentary of their store which demonstrates how they’ve moved through the years and many advances they’ve made:
J. Levine Books & Judaica Documentary
The history of their store hit a bumpy road with the addition of online competition, from large companies like Amazon.com. J. Levine Books and Judaica had no choice but to join the 21st century, and have done so successfully with over thirty thousand items on their online store, and three social media outlets They have been able to change and adapt with the times. In an article by The Jewish Week, J. Levine Books and Judaica is said to have changed for modern times to stay afloat “like many traditional bookstores, J. Levine is wrestling with an adapt-or-die reality as it competes with online mega-booksellers such as Amazon. The brick-and-mortar shops have developed a variety of strategies to stay profitable and deal with declining book sales,” (Sales). In this article, Ben Sales also states that from 2000 to 2005 their sales dropped by eighteen percent due to the emergence of Amazon.com. Fortunately, they bounced back with an online store, and strong social media presence. Throughout the history of their store, they’ve adapted in order to stay in the game.
In the timeline below I’ve highlighted the ways J. Levine Books and Judaica has changed and adapted over the years to attract more business and to adjust for more contemporary times.
The most recent addition to the store’s management, fifth generation Shawn J. Levine has been instrumental in their online presence. In the documentary listed above, he articulates that although they have a great number of items available on their online catalog, they are still hoping that people will be wiling to come into their store and have more of a face-to-face interaction.
J. Levine Books and Judaica accomplished what only a fraction of the immigrants having come into the country from Ellis Island were able to. They attained the “American Dream”. An immigrant man moving to New York City to be a successful religious book distributor, ends up beginning a multi-generational family business still centered on their religious ideals. Today, the store has been featured in The New York Times, AP articles, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and YouTube. Now under management of fifth generation Shawn J. Levine, with the help of his father David, the store is headed for nothing but success. In the picture to the right from left to right are David, Shawn, and his daughter sixth generation Logan. Who knows what Logan’s generation will have to bring to the business!
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
“Jewish Bookstores of the Old East Side.” The Book Peddler; Newsletter of the National Yiddish Book Exchange (n.d.): 20-23. Rpt. in Brandels University Libraries ILL. 17th ed. N.p.: n.p., Summer 1992. Print.
J. Levine Books and Judaica
J. Levine Co.A Modern Tradition “JUDAICA BOOK NEWS”, 1981″
J. Levine & Judaica 3 generations
J. Levine Co. Photo
NYC Lower East Side c. 1990s
Shawn & Daniel Levine
J. Levine and Judaica Documentary (Youtube)
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