Going beyond the buy at local synagogues' Judaica shops

 

From kosher scrolls to kosher soap, these shops aim to please everyone’s wants and wish lists

 

BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
mattf@jewishjacksonville.org

 

                People in the Jacksonville Jewish community pass by them nearly every week, if not day, while on their way to services, school or simply a synagogue sponsored function. The small glass rooms with tons of trinkets, some small and some large, others colorful or monotone, get plenty of foot traffic, but most people would be surprised to find out these modest spaces known as Judaica shops have weeks if not months of planning and purchasing put into them before one's eyes ever settle on a specific item beyond the gleaming glass walls.
                "Jacksonville has a decent sized Jewish community but it's not big enough to support a free standing Judaica shop," said Jacksonville Jewish Center Judaica shop chair Etta Fialkow. That's why along San Jose Boulevard, people will find not one or two, but three separate, self sufficient shops at the three synagogues in Mandarin.
                "Several years ago a listerv was set-up for Judaica shop chairs by the Women's League, which is the umbrella organization over the Conservative Movement's Sisterhoods," Fialkow explained. "I think that listerv has probably helped me with this shop more than anything else because I am familiar with over more than 240 vendors who sell Judaica."
                While Fialkow, who has been at the helm of her synagogue's shop for a dozen years now, mostly orders online, down the road on San Jose, another Judiaca shop orders its items out of town and in person.
                "I go to New York to the International Gift Show, which has vendors from Israel and around the world, for about 80-percent of my purchases, that is my contribution to The Temple," explained Congregation Ahavath Chesed's Judiaca shop manager, Wendy Efron. "I try to find things that are unique, so 100-percent of the things in this shop were handpicked by me and I try to cater to every price and taste level," she added. Efron has been overseeing the Temple's Judiaca shop since 1997, when it started out as a modest display cabinet, where the reception area is located currently. "After the merchandise comes in, it has to be unpacked, priced, inventoried and displayed," she said.
                Likewise, at the Center there is a lot of planning and unpacking that goes into each precisely priced purchase. "A lot of times there are things that I will order as needed, but I've tried having a little bit of everything," explained Fialkow, who began heading up the Center's shop operations, shortly after it was remodeled in 2004. "I am happy to special order things when people know exactly what they want."
                A stone's throw from the Center is Etz Chaim Synagogue and it's gift shop, which is the only one of the three that actually has a formal name. Known as 'Bubby's Place', a nickname of longtime volunteer Gertie Pearlman, the shop is much more modest in scope than it's Mandarin counterparts. "I think most of the people here order a lot of their stuff online," said Etz Chaim Sisterhood president Beth Beyer. "A lot of the stuff that we carry are more traditional or are geared specifically for those who are orthodox."
                Even though the shop might be smaller in size, it still has some unique items that you might not find at inside the Temple or Center's walls. "We have a lot of traditional books and tzitzit's that the boys wear," Beyer described of her shop's collection. "I also order shells and clothing for women in addition to negel vassers or hand washing sets."
                Unlike Beyer, both Efron and Fialkow came to this volunteer position naturally, as they previously held professional positions in retail. "I had a retail store in Lakewood, so a lot of people who were here in the early 80's would remember that we sold personalized gifts," Fialkow said. Like her counterpart, Efron too dabbled in purchasing and buying before taking her trade to her local shul. "I had my own shop in the early 80's here in Jacksonville, where I had a partner and we sold stained and etched glass," Efron explained. "I did that for five years, then helped open up Talbots when they came to town and from there I went to Mandarin painting and decorating," she added of her background and expertise in the area.
                With plenty of years or prior experience under their belt, both heads of shop seem to have a keen sense for what sells and what doesn't, when it comes to the merchandise within their walls.
                "I'm sure we sell more mezuzah cases and kosher scrolls than anything else," Fialkow explained of the Center's operation. "We also have gift registries for babies, bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings, so we sell a good bit based on what the celebrants choose."
                "80-percent of my business are mezuzahs," Efron echoed of her counterpart's experiences. "A close second I would have to say would be split between candlesticks and jewelry."
                As for what exactly sells better and what doesn't, there isn't exact science to it, but these women have made some keen observations. "There are things I sell, that as soon as I unwrap it and put it in the window, someone says, 'oh that's great', Efron explained. "Unfortunately though, you can have some things that remain in your window for months."
                It's when that happens these local shops resort to something their commercial cousins do around town; hold a sale. "The last four or five years during Purim, we have taken everything that’s been in here a long time and will price it down to go," Fialkow described of the shop's annual mega sale. "It's called Vashti Shuk and I set up about 14 tables out in the lobby to get rid of a ton of stuff." Likewise, the Temple is also planning to have its first ever Judaica shop sale, scheduled for the Sunday, Feb. 21st.
                Ironically enough two of the shop's most unique pieces over the years to sell were equally as expensive and original. "I had a beautiful Michael Aram menorah that was $425, which I bought hoping it would sell as that's sort of high for us," Efron described of one of her most memorable sales. "I had it in the window and it did in fact sell."
                "One thing that I ordered was a $550 Seder plate which had all the animals on it from Chad Gadya and when it came in, it was so big that I had to set it on one of the columns in the front window because it was huge!" Fialkow recalled. "It was here all of four days and a man saw it in the window after minyan one day, bought it and had it sent to his daughter in either California or New York."
                While some gifts are bought locally and shipped nationally, sometimes buyers come from all around and even outside the Jewish community to find a specific Star of David themed treasure.
                "One time this couple pulled up in a huge Winnebago and while the man was sitting outside with his dog, the woman came in and said she needed to buy a havdalah set but she had to have the saucer that came with the Kiddush cup," the Center's shop head remembered. Fialkow also recalled another incident when a man purchased a Shofar to help him continue his Christian missionary work on the west side of Jacksonville as well as a gentile who bought a tallis as an Easter present for someone.
                "We have a lot of people from the churches who come in that love Israel," Efron said. "They also really like tallises for some reason and will come in for other kind of prayer objects as well."
                In between visits from the most unconventional customers, Efron and Fialkow know when to expect their bread and butter or matzo and butter depending on what time of year it is. "The big season really is Chanukah but the other two major holidays that people think of when coming here are Rosh Hashanah and Passover," Fialkow explained.
                "As soon as Chanukah items go up in October, we take down the Rosh Hashanah themed gifts which went up in August," Efron described of the science involved in timing her displays. "Then as soon as Chanukah is over, Passover goes into the window sometime in January."
                Despite the ebbs and flows of each shop, the proprietors take pride in their inventory and legitimately enjoy hawking Hebrew items to a captive audience.
                "You have to love selling because when someone walks in, they do so with a purpose," Efron said. "If you ask somebody what are they looking for, they are obviously looking for something to buy or they wouldn't be in the shop."
                "I'll stay sometimes into the early evening, when minyan starts because to me it's like a game," Fialkow explained of her competitive spirit.
                All the money generated through sales at all three Judaica shops goes toward benefiting each synagogue's sisterhood. Between the Temple and the Center, both average about a dozen or so volunteers, while Etz Chaim has three. All of them keep regular Monday through Friday business hours as well as some select Sundays during religious school, which just so happens to be when the Temple and the Center do a good chunk of their business. For those interested in stopping by and making a purchase, each store accepts cash, check or charge and even one, the Temple tried online shopping a few years back. To reach Etta Fialkow at the Jacksonville Jewish Center's Judiaca shop, call 904-292-1000, or to get a hold of Wendy Efron at The Temple's dial 904-733-7078. Etz Chaim's shop can be reached by dialing the synagogue's main number at 904-262-3565, ext. 7 or by e-mailing Beth Beyer at bethwu61@gmail.com.