Baghdadi's Oriental Bookshop

Abdallah Baghdadi rests on a white plastic stool. He leans back against a display case inside his store that faces Azzahra Street. The case behind him is nearly empty. On top of it rest a few baby Jesuses, Christmas bells, a crèche, assorted pendants, and stick pens. I lean forward on my stool and ask him what he thinks.

What remains on top of the display case.

His English is wistful. “Forty years passed like ten. I don’t feel about the time.”

From this plastic perch Abdallah has witnessed almost five decades of activity in East Jerusalem. It is a room with a view. Packs of shoppers, soldiers, schoolgirls, and tourists have jostled past his door. Some even came in. But all of this will end next week. He and his older brother, Ahmad (a kindly round-faced man known to many as simply “Mr. Baghdadi”), are retiring.

Abdallah in front of the Oriental Bookshop.

There are many reasons, of course.

Age is a part of it. Mr. Baghdadi is shuffling into his seventies and doesn’t get around very well. He struggles with diabetes. I drank tea with him earlier in the afternoon. When I first walked through his door, he rose and chirped delight, despite his ailments. We embraced and kissed the air in an Arab style greeting. Then he disappeared into the street to call down the tea boy. When the boy arrived with his carrying tray of hot drinks, Mr. Baghdadi was light with the sugar and equally careful as he lowered himself, tea in hand, onto the plastic stool where his brother now sits.

The younger Baghdadi is more spry than Ahmad, but only a few years behind him in age. As we visit, I appreciate their system. First Ahmad, then Abdallah. Occasionally, both. This is how it has worked. From these plastic stools the Baghdadis faced the public, drank tea with friends from around the world, and nursed their economic adventure since 1966.

Tim shops for an olive wood figurine.

The early days are not forgotten. Abdallah tells me how they helped the carpenter to build the empty shelves that line the walls of the shop and then describes how they initially filled those shelves with pencils, pens, notebooks, and stationery. This start-up gave the place its name: “Oriental Bookshop.” The letters are still seen on the awning over the front door. It was a good fit for the Arab side, the business center of this divided city. Curled photographs hang on the wall and give witness to the early days.

After the Six Day War in 1967, the world of East Jerusalem was radically changed. The notebook and paper business struggled. One day a bus driver suggested that the two exchange their stationery for tourist items of carved olive wood from Bethlehem. The switch was made, but the name “Bookshop” stuck. Since that day the shelves have been full of “camels, donkeys, and so on.” Abdallah considers this flexibility part of the reason for his success. “Here, like the Orient.”

The shelves are nearly empty today.

The years leading up to and through much of the 1990s were mostly good for the Bookshop. The switch paid off. Or, as Abdallah puts it, “The streets were full of walking.” The hotels were full. Tourists came around regularly. Unfortunately, this boom did not last, and hence, for reasons beyond age and health, the following bust is forcing the Baghdadis into retirement.

The Israeli government will not permit any improvements to the Arab neighborhood. “Not one stone,” claims Abdallah. His street is frozen in time. The buildings are dirty and worn down. Complicating this situation are four enormous new hotels built precisely along the line between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem. They were built by and for foreign money. Their presence has tilted the gravity of East Jerusalem away from the local Arab businesses in the Salah edh-Din neighborhood, further hindering profitability.

Since 2000, traffic through the Oriental Bookshop has been slow. So slow, in fact, the Baghdadi brothers have lost money in each of the last four years. They cannot compete with the volume and glitz of the self-contained centers that isolate buyers from local markets. In a declining neighborhood where the costs of taxes, rent, utilities, and insurance are skyrocketing, the Baghdadis can no longer keep up. After 47 years, this family business will close in mid-March of 2013.

I ask Abdallah what he will do next. He smiles. “Sleeping in the day and sleeping in the night.”

Keith contemplates a final purchase.

I shake hands and thank Abdallah for his many years of friendship. He offers me his phone number and tells me to call him at home the next time I am in town. Then he roots around to find me a parting gift (as he always does). This time it is different. Instead of a Christmas ornament of olive wood, he hands me the last book on the empty shelves of the “Bookshop.” It is an old paperback, yellowed by age. The date of publication is 1945. On the cover it reads, The Friendship of Christ by Charles Smyth.  Abdallah urges me to take it and read it. “It is good. It is all about friends.”

I agree. “It is, Abdallah. It sure is.”