With bob and bob set to shut doors, Judaica shops still bobbing along

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Jerry Derblich is the East Bay’s “steady.”

Sure, they can cheat on him, run around with cheaper online Judaica providers or the ubiquitous Barnes & Noble. But when they really need something, they always find their way back through his door.

“If people only come in here the last minute and say they need oil cups for their menorah, that’s not enough. They wait until the last minute and you never see them the rest of the year. They ask how you do it, how you put the oil in, and you give them all the info and don’t see them for the rest of the year,” said the Berkeley purveyor of books and Judaica.

Like every other Bay Area Judaica shop owner — all two of them — Derblich learned of the imminent closure of Palo Alto’s bob and bob Fine Jewish Gifts, Cards and Books via last week’s j. And Derblich predicted that if people don’t bother to support the Bay Area’s local Jewish stores, they’ll be reading more such articles in this paper.

“A lot of people are probably very upset about bob and bob closing,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll open again. But if people don’t use it, they’ll lose it.”

Bob and bob lasted 25 Chanukahs at its downtown Palo Alto location, and is the oldest Judaica store in the Bay Area. But it joins a growing list of local Judaica shops to fail in a market ravaged by online shopping. Danville’s L’Chaim gift shop ended a nine-year run in 2004 and Walnut Creek’s short-lived Meshek died in 2005.

The three remaining Judaica owners, however, predict that 2007 may not be a great year, but at least it won’t be a terrible one.

“I’ve positioned myself in such a way that expenses are under control, and I don’t see any reason why I won’t [be around next Chanukah], unless something drastic happens,” said Derblich.

Hiroko Rosen, co-owner of Dayenu at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, said she has a two-year lease, the JCC foot traffic is good and the numbers indicate they’ll easily last until the end of the lease.

Nurit Sabadosh, owner of Alef Bet Judaica in Los Gatos, has been open 13 years and certainly isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. Reading about bob and bob’s demise, however, did hit close to home.

“I thought they were doing very well,” she said. After reading j.’s article last week “the first thing I said was ‘we’ll be next, who knows?’ It was just a shock to me.”

Sabadosh doesn’t predict she’ll garner many new customers with bob and bob at least temporarily going under (it’s a 50-mile round trip between the two stores). In fact, the notion sickens her.

“One of my workers said, ‘Aren’t you happy?’ and I said, ‘No, not at all.’ I’ve known [co-owner Ellen Bob] for years and when I was a teacher I used to go to bob and bob to buy things. We’re in the South Bay, which is a completely different locale and clientele, and I didn’t see us as competitors. When I didn’t have something I’d send a customer to them and they’d send customers to me.”

Derblich said he often told customers, “Don’t go to Amazon, go to bob and bob” if he couldn’t help them.

As Bob told j. last week, both Sabadosh and Derblich confirmed that they, too, have seen a steady drop in business since 2001 (Dayenu hasn’t been open that long). This is due, largely, to Internet shopping — especially among young people, the most coveted clientele for Judaica store proprietors.

While Bob was locked into a high rent at a location that was far from the nexus of Jewish life, other Judaica stores have been more flexible in bending to financial needs.

Derblich notes that he has been able to cut costs by closing a $12,000-a-year second storefront. Bob and bob, in one location, could not similarly jettison space.

“If I couldn’t close that space around the corner and keep my rent low, I’d have suffered the same fate,” he acknowledged.

Afikomen’s numbers are better now than in the recent past, but that’s because overhead has been cut, not due to increased sales.

And, like all the remaining Judaica store owners, Derblich knows he can count on people running in just before a holiday and buying haggadahs or menorahs or yahrzeit candles. But is that enough to base a business on?

“We’re trying,” he said. “We’re really trying.”

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.