Mom and daughter shopkeepers celebrate chai year

With sale books on a cart outside the front door, more books and children's toys in the back and a profusion of Judaica from floor to ceiling in the front room, bob and bob is stuffed to the gills for Chanukah.

Eighteen years after mother and daughter — Shirley Bob and Ellen Bob — set up shop in downtown Palo Alto, their eponymous store has grown beyond their dreams. And as they celebrate their chai year, they say much of their good luck has come from a supportive community where Jews of all levels of observance get along.

"For me and my mom, one of the gratifying things is people here really are decent," Ellen says. "We carry tzitzit, and we carry tallitot for girls and women. We try to meet the needs of the community, and the response from the community seems to indicate we've succeeded."

In addition to serving as a source for Jewish books, gifts and stationery, bob and bob is an unofficial drop-in center where customers share recipes, discuss books and bump into long-lost friends.

"I tell people to look in the mirror before you walk in," says Ellen, 43, sitting in her office in the back of the shop. "You don't know who you're going to run into."

Her mother agrees. On a recent Sunday afternoon, during a book reading, a woman ran into her father's best friend, whom she hadn't seen in years, as well as other people she knew. On another occasion, says Shirley, "a man came in carrying an infant, like a trophy. 'You did our ketubah,' he said.

"It's really a meeting place," says Shirley. "The community has been very good to us."

When the two Bobs decided to open a store in Palo Alto 18 years ago, "we figured we'd try it for two years," says Shirley, 74, a longtime Los Altos resident and community volunteer who had never worked outside the home during her marriage. "We just kept going, like the Energizer bunny."

At the time, Ellen, a former journalist and recent Brandeis University graduate, had returned to California from the Boston area. She was planning to move to Israel within a year or so and was biding her time, editing a biweekly newspaper for the Palo Alto Coop.

Shirley was burned out as a volunteer and Ellen, who was then single, was "kind of bored" with her work. Putting their heads together, they opened a store on Forest Avenue at the corner of High Street.

"Eighteen years later, we're still here," says Ellen, who is now married to David Waksberg, the former executive director of the Bay Area Council for Rescue and Renewal and now a software developer; they have three children.

Ellen, a Palo Alto resident who grew up in Los Altos, says the local Jewish community has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades and the store has grown with it.

Institutions such as the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center emerged since she first left home to go to college, along with a number of new synagogues, running the gamut from Orthodox to experimental. In addition, she says, Stanford Hillel has become a stronger presence, Mollie Stone's has emerged with a large kosher food section and New Bridges is bringing together Jews of all persuasions.

"Now Palo Alto is the center of Jewish life in the south Peninsula, and the Jews here all talk to each other," Ellen says, adding that all the community organizations came together in September to participate in the Jewish street fair on California Avenue, sponsored by New Bridges.

Over the years, the shop has grown along with the community, expanding from 1,000 square feet to 2,000. While the Bobs could easily fill 4,000 or more square feet — and they would enjoy having a cafe in the store instead of an electric coffee pot in the book area — downtown Palo Alto rents are prohibitive and "there's no place to go," says Ellen.

"We just ask our customers' forbearance. You know how you can't build a synagogue for Yom Kippur? You can't build a store for Passover or Chanukah, and right now we're bursting at the seams."

In the past decade and a half, the Bobs have seen shifts in taste in Jewish ritual objects, with more interest in purchasing lovely pieces. "When we first started, it was hard to find beautiful things," Ellen says.

The bulk of the business, Ellen says, comes from young families who are setting up house and purchasing Judaica. In addition, many people who are exploring Judaism — for the first time or as returnees — come in to purchase books.

One of Ellen's greatest joys is being able to help a former practicing Buddhist pick out a book explaining Jewish philosophy, or assist a mother and a grandmother coming in with a kid to pick out a tallit.

"For me, the real pleasure is being able to work in the Jewish community without a board of directors," says Ellen. "It's just me and my mom. We don't have any outside investors. We can take the risks we want to take. There's a lot of freedom there."

Shirley agrees. One of the joys is providing an informal place where people can get together and ask questions, she says. "We're non-threatening."

As the store's facilities manager as well as the buyer for Judaica, giftware, card and party goods, Shirley makes sure "the coffee pot is going on all day" for the customers and there are cookies or noshes for the employees. A month shy of her 75th birthday, she works five full days a week, sometimes filling in on the sixth day during the busy season.

Shabbat is for family and for Congregation Kol Emeth, the Conservative Palo Alto synagogue where she has been an active member for 31 years and a former sisterhood president. Her late husband, Fred Bob, was president of the congregation. Ellen's family is also active in the synagogue, where Ellen founded the Rosh Chodesh group.

Both mother and daughter also are involved in other Jewish organizations. Shirley is a past regional president of Women's American ORT and Ellen is a past president of the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School.

Turning to the store, Shirley says the secret of its success is that "we give it proper attention and we're there all the time. It's rare that there isn't a Bob there."

Shirley began the store while her husband was still alive. "He gave us his full support and loved the name."

While the Bobs have been asked to build outposts in Marin or other parts of the Bay Area, "we can't split ourselves more thinly than we are," Shirley says.

Retirement doesn't seem likely either. "I love to get up in the morning and get dressed, showered and go to work," Shirley says. "The day I don't enjoy it, I will stop working."

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Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].