Palo Alto institution bob and bob to close future uncertain

For 25 Chanukahs, mother and daughter Shirley and Ellen Bob’s store has been the place for downtown Palo Alto shoppers to pick up all things Jewish, from menorahs to mezuzahs.

And this will be the last.

Their bob and bob Fine Jewish Gifts, Cards and Books will be closing its doors Jan. 15. Store co-owner Ellen Bob hopes to reopen them in time to sell haggadahs, but she has no idea where those future doors might be.

Until now the store’s imminent closure was a loosely kept secret among the Bobs and their 14 part-time employees. Ellen Bob has gone public in the hope that someone can help her find a cheaper location in south Palo Alto near the future Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life, the Gideon Hausner Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School.

“This is an institution in the community that is not just appreciated but loved by many people. This news, I think, will be very distressing to a lot of people — including me,” said Shelley Hebert, CEO of the campus and a 17-year Palo Alto resident.

“It’s unthinkable to me that the South Peninsula Jewish community will not have a Judaica store.”

Unfortunately, thanks to the Internet, it may be inevitable. Bob said sales have been steadily declining since 2001; since February of this year she has realized that “business is unsustainable in our current plan.”

The store’s extensive collection of books made it a great place to browse, but books sell at a low profit margin and shoppers can utilize more online services than ever before.

“It would be a shame to lose that resource, because Ellen is kind of like a rabbi to the unaffiliated. It’s not just a tchotchke shop — she gives expert advice,” said Rabbi Ari Cartun, a 31-year Palo Alto resident and the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chayim.

The news hits especially close to home for Cartun, as two of his daughters are part-time workers at the store.

“There is a demand for this, but you can get it online. People would rather shop while sitting on their tushes.”

Added professor Steven Zipperstein, director of Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, “There is something very real lost to Jewish culture when spaces like bob and bob disappear, spaces outside the university where people can gather and talk about books and ideas face to face.”

While the South Peninsula’s Jewish population has expanded exponentially since bob and bob opened in 1982, Bob said she isn’t reaching her crucial clientele anymore. Most of her customers tend to skew older these days, and older Jews have already amassed whatever Judaica they need. Young people and families are purchasing their goods elsewhere (probably online), if they purchase them at all.

Bob and bob’s plight was not helped by the fact that its location at 151 Forest Ave. has become a near-impossible place to park, and is no longer in a neighborhood Jewish shoppers might stroll through inadvertently. Downtown’s sky-high rents — driven to the stratosphere by national chains — are a burden to any mom ‘n’ daughter shop.

Bob and Hebert have spoken about a 400-square-foot Judaica kiosk in the future JCC. Yet that JCC won’t exist for roughly two and a half years, and the kiosk’s size would only allow it to be a bob and bob satellite, not a full store.

If the doors do not reopen, Bob worries that a point-and-click lifestyle will squeeze the emotion out of Jewish life in the South Peninsula.

“The things that make it worth it for us to stay in business haven’t gone away,” she said.

“When a kid puts on a tallis for the first time, and stands up tall and grandma begins to cry — you can’t get that on the Internet.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.