Highbrow S.F. gumshoe ferrets out rare Jewish books

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From the outside, it looks like the office of a hard-boiled, film-noir private eye. A weathered wooden door with a glass pane reads simply "Henry Hollander, Bookseller."

Hollander, a soft-spoken Columbia University graduate with a cascade of curly hair and a penchant for corduroy, is no Sam Spade. But if you can find his retail shop — tucked away without a storefront, high in a downtown San Francisco office building — Hollander will be your highbrow gumshoe, ferreting out rare and out-of-print Jewish books.

"Judaica is a tough specialty," says Hollander, pushing up his glasses and bemoaning the scarcity of antique European haggadot and other frequently requested items.

Hollander, who set up shop downtown in July, is one of only two Bay Area booksellers who specialize in rare Jewish titles. The other is Rabbi Irvin Ungar, who has a gallery and antiques business, Historicana, in Burlingame.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Hollander gingerly unwraps a package that has finally arrived from a Cleveland, Ohio, book dealer.

"The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia 1917-1918" and "How Haig Saved Lenin" may not be most people's idea of pleasurable reading. But to one of the book sleuth's customers, those rare scholarly works are worth the wait and the $75 price tag.

Hollander located the two books while using the Internet, a popular tool for book scouts today, and arranged to buy them from the Cleveland shop. In search of merchandise, he also scans garage sales, thrift stores and auctions. At the latter, he recently purchased a turn-of-the-century German volume on Jewish graveyards that was worth between $650 and $750.

While he encourages collectors to visit the downtown store in person, Hollander conducts much of his business through mail order. His catalogue is available in hard copy or online (http://www.hollanderbooks.com). Titles listed in the catalogue range from "The Great Jewish Masque or the Ass in Lion's Skin," an anti-Jewish book printed in South Africa almost 70 years ago, to "At the Wedding at the Wedding at the Wedding Jubilee," a 1914 Yiddish songbook.

Surrounded by towering shelves of secondhand volumes, an ancient computer and various forms of bubble wrap, Hollander says Jewish books "have been subject to predation over the years." From the time of the Inquisition to the Holocaust and beyond, he says, Jewish books have been systematically targeted and destroyed.

Despite the difficulty in uncloaking rare Judaica, he persists, knowing that one person's doorstop or flower-presser is another's coveted window to the past. He says one of the main reasons readers crave rare old books is that such volumes offer endless hours of vicarious experience.

Today's readers, he notes, "are never going to live in Dickens' world. But if you read a first edition, you can hold the same copy that your counterpart in Dickens' time read."

Judaica, he says, evokes especially strong feelings of this kind. "A lot of people want to find out about family they lost in the Holocaust, or find a way back to the experience of Eastern Europe, or New York Yiddishkeit."

Browsing the shelves of his store, he casually steps over toys while scooping up his 1-year-old daughter, Ruth. She keeps her father company every day, making herself at home in his world of bindings and indexes.

"I'm in charge of order, and she's in charge of disorder," he says. Ruth looks up, smiling sweetly as she pulls the tape out of her father's favorite Bonnie Raitt cassette with her tiny fingers.

Hollander isn't rattled. He shrugs and proceeds to show off other treasures including his prized collection of antique cookbooks. The French "Gastronomie Juif" is his favorite. He sells a well-preserved 1913 edition for $85. He also sells reproductions of "The Jewish Manual," which he says is the first published Jewish cookbook, printed in England in 1846.

Sliding a worn volume from a high shelf, he shows off a Council of Jewish Women Cookbook published in Portland, Ore., circa 1932.

"The recipes aren't kosher," he admits, "but it gives you a sense of the kind of food Jewish people liked."

An 1857 siddur (prayer book), printed in both German and Hebrew, is also evocative. The small volume is covered in purple velvet and adorned with metal detailing. It is easy to imagine the set of hands that long ago smoothed the velvet into a matte sheen.

If you're looking for that elusive Jewish book that appears neither in Hollander's catalog nor on his shelves, Hollander will do his best to find it for you. Don't expect this literary private dick to offer you an unfiltered Lucky Strike or a swig of whiskey as the sleuthing begins. But he will scratch his head, clutch his baby to his chest and hit the alleyways of the Internet.