Monday 25 December 2023

A Bookseller of Jerusalem by Nelly Shulman, coffee

I first stumbled upon his shop on one of those ghostly pale days when the veil of snow descended upon the city from the leaden skies, when the stones weep with moisture and the diamond frost crowns the dark greenery in the enclosed gardens.

            Slipping on the pavement, wrapped in a scarf, I hurried home. In winter, Jerusalem's days are short, and the heavenly light, having touched the city in the morning, disappears by the late afternoon.

            I was aching for coffee and an armchair to extend my tired legs. My house was just a quarter an hour away, but I wanted to spend a few minutes of mindless rest by the window of the coffee shop. I loved to people-watch, but today, an empty street bathed in the eerie silence of an approaching Shabbat. A sharp wind pushed me, and I almost knocked down a small blackboard on the pavement.

 ‘Coffee and Letters.’ I read. ‘Open every Friday.’

The bell on the door tinkled, and I stepped into the warmth of a cramped nook, where the multitude of books and the pyramids of shabby magazines almost obscured the tiny counter with a copper coffee pot and an electric stove. The handwritten card on the glass jar advised me to pay what I wished.

I was almost expecting to see a benevolent genie, but a man who appeared from behind the velvet curtain wore a kippah and a beard of an observant Jew. I judged him to be on the lesser side of forty, which would have made him my peer.

            I asked for a coffee politely since it was a bookshop and not a street stand, and, hearing my accent, the bookseller switched to fluent English.

 ‘Certainly,’ he pointed to the crammed shelves. ‘Please feel free to browse.’

            Inhaling the pungent smell of spices, I looked through the most bewildering collection of books I have ever encountered.

Prose jostled for space with poetry, and playwrights threatened to suffocate the memoirists. I saw books in English and Hebrew, French and Russian, Yiddish and Spanish.

 ‘Here is your coffee.’

His steps were as light as a feather. He was a lithe man of an almost ballet grace, so tall that he had to lower his head diving into the back of the shop, where, as I supposed, he kept the storage of sorts.

            Coffee smelt of a sunny afternoon in the Old City, and the candied violet melted in my mouth.

 I saw the owner only when leaving and paying for the book I chose, the whimsical Victorian gardening manual. I wanted to grow some vegetables in the tiny backyard of my apartment.

            Thus, my weekly visits to the shop started. As Jerusalem was plunging into the deepest winter and people crowded the shops looking for Hanukkah presents, I always came to “Coffee and Letters” on Friday afternoon for coffee, books, and conversation.

            Yaakov, the owner, was unfailingly polite and almost invisible, appearing from behind the velvet curtain when, having drunk my coffee, I took a book or two from the shelves. We spoke about Joyce and Kafka, Chekhov and Mansfield, Flaubert and Du Maurier.

Once, he inquired whether I believed in ghosts, and I smiled.


 ‘Sometimes our memories are so potent they turn into ghosts,’ Yaakov said. ‘Have a wonderful Shabbat.’

 I bought a poetry book that afternoon, and Yaakov remarked he was a student of the late author, a great luminary of Hebrew letters. I deduced the bookseller was not born observant.

            Next Friday, on the first eve of Hanukkah, I hurried to the shop, slipping on the icy pavement, longing for a familiar warmth and the smell of spices mixed with the comforting aroma of an old paper.

The street sign was not there, and I thought Yaakov took it in, preparing to close the shop before Shabbat. I still had an hour to linger in a shabby chair by the window, frosted with a snowy lace. The day was clear but bitterly cold, with a sharp northern wind.

            The window display, where the pyramids of worn books threatened to fall over, was gone. A shadow appeared in the darkness, and I stepped over the threshold. The stocky woman in a neat wig looked at me with displeasure.

 ‘I am not open yet,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘I have rented the space only recently. Did you want to buy a wig?’

 ‘Yaakov,’ I mumbled. ‘I am looking for Yaakov. There used to be a bookshop here.’

 She switched to accented English.

 ‘You must be his family from abroad.’

 I nodded, and she signed.

 ‘He fell in the war last year. That's what the estate agent said. Wait,’ she ordered, ‘sit down.’

 I sank into the same chair, standing in the same place, but the walls around me were devoid of shelves and books, and the coffee smell gave way to the whiff of desolation and despair.


A sheaf of papers appeared in my lap.

 ‘I found them in the box behind the counter,’ the woman explained. ‘They look like poems.’

            I left the shop, clutching them in the tight embrace, but a sharp gust of wind slapped my wet cheeks, and, losing my balance on the black ice, I released the papers. White wings and black letters soared to the azure Jerusalem sky.

I heard his soft voice.

 ‘Have a blessed Shabbat,’ Yaakov said.

 ‘You too,’ I echoed. ‘Wherever you are.’



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