“The rent went up and the sales went down,” explains Yaakov Saltzer matter-of-factly over the phone when discussing his decision to close down the 83-year-old West Side Judaica shop he has owned since the early 1980s. That is, until sales started going up again.
Following a July report in West Side Rag announcing the store’s imminent closure, customers of the uptown establishment rallied behind it and found a way to keep it open–for now.
“It’s very much local support, from all the synagogues, from all those customers,” he says. “They all want me to stay, they like the store. We’ve got very good service here and we appreciate all the customers and they appreciate us.”
Located on Broadway between West 88th and West 89th Streets, West Side Judaica sells books, Kiddush cups, tefilin, yarmulkes, menorahs and other Jewish-related products. “People come in, they ask questions, they read something, we help them out with Yiddish,” says the 60-year-old when discussing the kind of experiences that only brick-and-mortar shops can offer customers.
Saltzer explains that both rent hikes and online competition have negatively impacted his business. “I bought the business in 1980 and I was paying $1,100 a month and, in 2017, with the real estate tax, I’m paying $24,000 per month.” That amounts to a 2,000% increase in price over 37 years.
When asked whether he’d consider an expansion into the online world, Saltzer says the change simply wouldn’t make sense. “The online business is very convenient and comfortable for people. Besides, the prices are better also because they don’t have the overheads,” he says. Would he consider closing up shop and moving everything online? Possible. “I wouldn’t pay this kind of rent and go online. If that’s what I’m going to do, I might as well close the store, go to a basement without any kind of overhead and make the business that way,” he says. But “there are a lot of people online. They don’t need me.”
Manhattan’s other Judaica store, J. Levine Books and Judaica at 5 West 30th Street, owned by Danny Levine, hasn’t been suffering from the same financial issues plaguing Saltzer’s shop. “He doesn’t have [to pay] the rent because his father owns the building,” says Saltzer.
Are the two businesses in competition? “Not at all,” explains the owner. “We are very good with one another, we help each other when we need something. We’re on very good terms, no competition whatsoever–he’s not in the same neighborhood.”
Sounding grateful for the support that his customers have given him these past few months, Saltzer hopes for the trend to continue and for him to be able to manage the current rent. “Hopefully, the business will stay this way and keep on going,” he says right before hanging up.
Anna Ben Yehuda is a New York-based writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter at @annabenyehuda.