The Jewish Bookseller
A year or so ago I got a phone call from someone named Frydka Bulechow. “Is this Ira Joel Haber?” “Yes it is what can I do for you?” “Yes Bibi Ruth suggested that I call you. I’m a bookseller and my name is Frydka Bulechow. Bibi thought that you might be able to help me with getting my books on line.” “Oh yes Bibi” I said. “How is she doing, haven’t seen or heard from her in quite some time.” “Yes she is fine, Frydka said.” “Well Frydka I would certainly be happy to help you. What kind of books do you sell?” “I’m a seller of books in Judaica and the holocaust.” I was a bit taken back by this, not by her selling Judaica, but the holocaust thing. “I want to sell on book sites like The Advanced Book Exchange and maybe Alibris. I live on the upper West Side, is that a problem for you?” "No not really, but it would take me at least 90 minutes or more to reach you as I leave deep in Brooklyn, but no it would not be a problem Frydka.” I told her my fees and we set up an appointment for next week.” The holocaust this might be intense I thought. I decided to give Bibi a call and see what she had to say about this bookseller in sorrow. Bibi answered the phone after the first ring and we exchanged pleasantries before my asking her about Frydka. “Oh Ira Joel she’s a nice woman. Her family got out of Germany I think in 1935 and she’s spent her adult life selling books on the Holocaust & Judaica, but I think she also sells books on other subjects.” “She is very bad with computers Ira Joel, even worse than me so be prepared but I think that you will be intrigued by her.” So the following week I made the long subway trek to the upper West Side of Manhattan. I’ve always liked this part of the city, with its crowded streets, pre-war apartment buildings and the wide selection of food shops and restaurants. I would also like to peruse the several used bookstores that were still in business and the book peddlers who would line Broadway with their stock, either set on tables or on the sidewalk. It was a stunning October fall day when I made my way to Frydka’s large pre-war apartment house on west 85th street. It was funny to me that we both lived on 85th street, her in Manhattan and me in Brooklyn. When I rang the bell to her apartment a dog started to bark. “Bitsy shut up” I heard Frydka yelling and soon she opened the door and I came face to face with my new client and her tiny barking dog that I took an immediate dislike to. Frydka was I guess in her 70’s with reddish dyed hair and a plump body. “Come in come in she said and I entered her apartment which like many upper West Side apartments was huge. The lousy little mutt was still barking and snapping at me, and I knew she was going to be trouble. I don’t care for small dogs anyway, and this one was a real nasty piece of work. Frydka took my coat and I started to look around at my surroundings. The living room was big, cluttered and dusty. A piano sat near the large curtainless windows which were dirty letting in some kind of gray afternoon light. Specks of dust hung in the air like in Barbara Stanwyck’s living room in Double Indemnity. I read somewhere that Billy Wilder actually had John Seitz the cinematographer of the film throw dust around the set to get that effect. This was not necessary in Frydka’s apartment. There were bookcases everywhere and of course books books and more books and lots of photographs of her family. “What should I call you?” Frydka asked. “You can call me Ira Joel Frydka.” “Joel would you like some coffee, something to eat?” “No I’m fine, but we should get started, where’s the computer?" “Oy it’s in my bedroom. It’s a mess.” Her bedroom was down a long dark hallway that was lined with more bookcases holding dusty books mostly without dust jackets. They looked like so much crap, but I didn’t say this to Frydka. Her bedroom was small and also cluttered with stuff and books. The computer sat on a small desk that was a mess of paper, books and whatnot. Post-its were stuck all over the computer. How can she work like this I thought as I sat down on an uncomfortable chair near the desk. “So Frydka lets get started what do you need me to teach you.” “Well I really need to you help me look up prices for my books and help me write descriptions for them and then show me how to put them up on the internet.” “Ok but first you have to stop that dog from barking, and nipping at me.”
Frydka tells me her story.
“We got out of Germany in 1935. I was 4 years old and my father knew to get us out. He had money and connections so he got my family out. Me my twin sister, my mother and his mother and father. We all got out. There was a big boat. We had to leave so much behind, but we got out just in time. He told his uncles and aunts and cousins to get out also, but they wouldn’t listen, they would not believe that terrible things were going to happen to the Jews. Hitler scared me. He was like an ogre something horrible out of one of my fairy tale books. We got on the boat and that was that. We came to America to New York City, which was magical to me as a child. It was all so shiny and new and big big. I loved New York City right away, although it took us time to adjust. All our relatives were killed, the ones that did not believe that anything bad would happen. We’re German they said. But that was not enough to save them because they were also Jews. I grew up on the upper West Side and moved to this apartment many years ago when I married my husband. He left me and I raised my 3 sons here in this very apartment. I love this apartment and will live here till the day I die.”
So began my work with Frydka. She had some really nice books but they were in such bad condition that I would scold her. “Frydka you must take better care of your books, look how tattered the book covers are.” She didn’t seem to care or understand that condition was very important when selling books. “How much should I charge for this very rare book.” “Well we have to look it up and see what its going for on Abe.” No matter how many copies of a book was listed on ABE she would insist on looking at each and every entry, sometimes there were a few, and sometimes there were a lot. It didn’t matter to her. Then she would print out the listings, which I thought was a big waste of time and paper. “Recycle the paper Frydka, print on the back, you’re wasting so much paper, it’s a shame.” The first thing I wanted to do was to take a look at her descriptions that she had already done, and they were a mess. She couldn’t type very well and her use of caps and the lower case throughout her descriptions looked SOmEthINg LIke THis also her spelling was atrocious. I had my work cut out for me. I started to do over her entries on her database and suggested that where a book’s title was in German she might want to also translate it into English, but she vetoed that because “I sell most of my books in Germany.” The afternoon passed, and because of the mess of her books, the clutter surrounding me and her descriptions I didn’t really get that much done. Her bratty little dog sat on her bed glaring at me and barking. “Frydka you have to do something about your dog, I can’t take her barking.” So she put her in the bathroom and she barked even more, so back on the bed she went. Some of the books that she had on the Holocaust was so disturbing that I refused to look at them. But the worse however was to come when I attempted to show her how to upload her books to The Advanced Book Exchange and Alibris. She couldn’t understand the rules that one must follow when uploading books to these websites and I would have to repeat over and over the rather simple procedures to get her books listed on line. “I have to write all this down.” She had a thick loose-leaf notebook, which was just as chaotic as everything else about Frydka and in the months to come when she would try to find her notes she couldn’t because her notes and the book she kept them in was a big mess. There was a room down the hall that she used to store her “better books” and once more I was appalled at the mess. Some of the shelves in the bookcases were broken and books were haphazardly placed on the floor, on chairs on anything that she could find that had space. I was starting to loose my patience. I didn’t want to because she really was a sweet kind person, but she just couldn’t understand anything I was trying to teach her. “Frydka you must back up your book files at least once a week.” Frydka you must cover your book jackets with plastic sleeves to protect them.” She was also incredibly self involved and showed no interest at all in what I did or who I was. When I mentioned that I had once been to Germany because I was having an exhibit there, she just looked at me and asked if I wanted a cup of coffee and went off into the kitchen. I would have thought she would have wanted to know my impressions and feelings about my being a Jew in Germany. It was like the time after my Uncle Natie’s funeral when I told my brother, sister and sister-in- law that I had come very close to being murdered the year before and they all looked at me as if I had said its raining outside and went on talking among themselves. So much for family concern. I was starting to give up on Frydka ever learning the business of internet bookselling. I made several more trips up to her place and I was about the throw in the towel. “Frydka listen, I don’t think I can do anything more for you.” “I’m really sorry but this is the last session we are going to have.” “And anyway you’re always complaining about not having money to pay me for my services” Somehow though she had enough money to make her yearly trips by boat no less to Germany to buy books for her business. She took this news fine and we said our good byes and that was that. A few months later I got a call from Bibi. “I have such sad news to tell you Ira Joel about Frydka.” “What is it Bibi?” “Well somehow there was a gas leak in her apartment and her children found her and the dog dead from the gas .” “Oh my that is such sad news Bibi I’ll have to send a note of condolence to her family.”
The two drawings used in this post are by Alfred Kantor who did them and many many others after his liberation in 1945 from 3 Nazi concentration camps. They have been collected in "The Book Of Alfred Kantor."