Brookline's "Kosher Korner" Merchants:
Have Economic Times Affected Business?
By Susie Davidson
BROOKLINE - Indispensable assets to their community, the proudly Judaic establishments of upper Harvard Street seem rightfully and perenially stalwart. One would hope that the current economic downturn would bypass this area, and the news thus far, while cautious, is reassuring.
Eli Dovek, who has owned the Israel Bookshop Inc. (IsraelBookshop.com) at 410 Harvard St. for 40 years, says his retail has only been minimally affected. He attributes this to his steady client base. "We service temples and schools. People are questioning at times whether they should spend more on very expensive items, but on the whole, this business doesn't change much.
"Our retail customers know that we have a complete line of Judaica, and with one stop shopping, they can get what they want.
"They get the service and they get the merchandise, and we always have the merchandise on hand."
Israel Bookshop does mail order, but not much internet. "We don't have the time for it," says Dovek without much regret; the busy store atmosphere of Fridays and Sundays attests to this truism.
"We have an average price for everyone, from dollars to hundreds of dollars. If people are more strapped, we have something in their price range."
"So far so good," says Lev Friedman, owner of Kolbo's Fine Judaica on 437 Harvard St. "We haven't really been affected - sales are up; business is brisk."
At Kolbo you can snag a notecard for $1.00 as well as a piece of artwork for $1200. "The more expensive items," he reports, "such as higher end artwork, hand sculpted crafts, limited edition, hand-pulled collographs, lithographs and silkscreens, continue to sell at the same pace.
"Of course, they never sell as well as the lower-priced items, but there hasn't been a noticeable change at this point."
In business for 24 years, Friedman takes great pride in Kolbo's solid rep. "We're regarded as the place you can go to get beautiful, hand crafted ritual items: talitot, ketubot, etc.
"In addition," he maintains, "we have a fabulous jewelry collection, an amazing selection of books, CD's, music, software, the most colorful Judaica gallery...Customers who've been to Florida, California, wherever, say we're in a league of our own."
In fact, Friedman has branched out. "We have great, loyal clients who love coming in, especially since the expansion/renovation 14 months ago. The store is now much more comfortable to browse and shop in.
"We see some of our customers daily, some weekly, others once a year," says Friedman. "They are mostly walk-in, but we have a big phone trade, and do more and more on the internet (www.kolbo.com.).
"I wouldn't say we are beyond economic trends - we certainly felt the recession of the early 90's. However, this time around, so far so good."
"People have to eat regardless of whether the economy is good or bad," says Butcherie (428 Harvard) co-owner Joshua Ruboy.
"When the economy is good, they have more money to spend; they socialize more, they entertain and barbeque more. But they also go out to eat more, which offsets things, so it really stays the same. I can't say business goes up, I can't say business goes down."
However, he's noticed a bit of a slowing of late. "This summer is a little quieter than normal - primarily due to people not taking vacations, and instead, taking day and weekend trips. Then they aren't in to do their normal shopping.
"For every person who comes in and buys extra food because they're around, there are those who don't because they aren't around - so it balances out.
Overall, there is a small percentage of a difference."
What about particular food decisions? "There is no such thing as expensive or inexpensive meat to us," he answers. "There is no actual trend - if the economy's bad and people are trying to save money, maybe they'll buy ground beef instead of steaks. Or, prior to a fast day, it's slow. But, the only time we sell more meat anyway is during the holidays.
"During the summertime", he continues, "people will buy more steak and chicken, more marinades and barbeque sauces. Certain breads slow down (rye slows for some reason). We sell more hamburger and hot dog rolls during the summer.
"But again, everybody has to eat. We're a small, traditional, family owned business, and our clientele is very, very loyal."
This loyalty is reciprocal. "We try to supply our customers with everything they ask for," says Ruboy. "We constantly research new products." Interestingly enough, regulars include vegans, Asians, Greek Orthodox, Muslims and others whose dietary laws may be similar.
Declining economic times have beneficially altered their offerings. "Since economic and eating trends have changed," Ruboy concludes, "and people are working longer, two people are working, etc., we are coming out with a new prepared foods menu, so they can feel they're dining out in their own home."
"Business is OK," says Andy Chung, owner of Ta'am China at 423 Harvard. "It's a little slower than it was two years ago. But, we do regular catering business with the New Jewish High School (at Brandeis), Hebrew College and MIT Hillel.
"The restaurant business is hard to gauge," he continued. "We're a small place. However, dinnertime is usually busy, especially on Saturday nights."
But summer is always slower at Ta'am China. "The students are gone - usually, we have a lot of Brandeis and BU students here on Saturday nights and Sundays."
He stresses the wide reach of his diners. "We have many out of state visitors and parents of children who are looking at schools."
And, although the restaurant doesn't yet have a web site, many Jewish organizations list it on theirs.
Thus, Harvard St. is staying afloat. Without offers to cash in rebate checks or to severely cut their prices, even without inordinate dependence upon the internet, Jewish businesses are surviving in these tough times. And it's the faithful customers, key to safeguarding the viability of these merchants, who prove, once again, that community is everything.