Halper's Books, 87 Allenby Street, Tel Aviv, Israel 65134
A path emerges from the busy, smoky, sooty Allenby Street in southern Tel Aviv, leading to a yard fenced in by bookcases. The books in the yard are mostly in French, but the ones inside the shop are in Hebrew and English, too. Tel Aviv’s shouting and honking, the outdoor bars and discount clothing stores, the black exhaust dust that stains your feet, the heaving buses—these are all left behind when you step inside. The hushed interior is nothing but books covering every bit of wall. A few spacious rooms are broken up by shelves, forming narrow aisles, each one an isolated universe. It’s dusty in a pleasant way, the smell of books rising to greet you as you move through the maze, each aisle turning into the next, so that you often lose your way as you head back to the entrance. The owner—New Jersey native Yossef Halper, after whom the shop is named—is always lost somewhere behind the piles of books on his desk.
Halper’s is the sort of place that one might walk into looking for a rare or little known book. Halper is the kind of owner who knows each title in the store by heart. He assists, if asked, but otherwise lets his customers browse aimlessly for as long as they want. I was first led into this maze by my husband-to-be, Shai, back in our early twenties, when we were still just friends, years before I bit the bullet and kissed him for the first time. We lost each other, and ourselves, among the secondhand books. I wandered between contemporary Israeli fiction and American biographies, between rare photography books and tiny editions of Hebrew poetry. I recall being especially enchanted by the English classics, dusty old hardcovers that had been transported to the Mediterranean. Books I never read and knew I probably never would, even as my fingers tingled to touch them, feeling all the people that had done so before me.
I had always been a big reader as a child, gobbling up books when it might have behooved me to play outside instead. I was afraid of ballgames, but had a well-trained imagination and the kind of focus that allows you to lose all track of time and responsibility, to forget about homework, the beauty of nature, even sleep. The kind of focus that, as a pre-teen, frustrated my mother (“You finished that book already? I just bought it for you yesterday!”) and exasperated my grandfather (“Put that book away and look outside the train window, you’re in Italy for crying out loud!”) even though they were the ones who’d taught me to love books. But just before my first visit to Halper’s, in my early twenties, I was finding it difficult to forget about the world around me. I was consumed by complex relationships with friends and boyfriends, by late-night heart-to-hearts. I watched a lot of movies. I listened to a lot of music. I was getting into photography. I spent a lot of time staring into space. I still shopped for books faster than I could actually finish them. I got stuck on each one for weeks, sometimes months. I’d forgotten, in a way, how to read.
It was easy for me and Shai to ignore each other at Halper’s that day, only marginally absorbing what this moment meant, as books took over our attention: our acknowledgment that we both knew the pleasure of words in silence. The beginning of my return to intense reading. My pace and concentration picked up over the next few years. I made space for books in my life, finding a way to lose myself again. My relationship with my friend also evolved during those years, and at some point it became impossible to ignore the connection that had been slowly forming between us. Three years later, we had our engagement photos taken among Halper’s over-stacked shelves. We’ve spent hours, since that first visit, enjoying the silence together: in bed, on the living room sofa, on buses, airplanes, beaches, parks, in Buddhist monasteries and at the bottoms of waterfalls, reading our respective books, blissfully ignoring and taking comfort in each other’s presence.