A Wise, if Not Wealthy, Bookstore : Strolling Into Solomon’s Is Like Falling Into Jerusalem
Los Angeles is a lot of little worlds--bronzed surfers, Oriental immigrants, actors, American Indians, aerospace workers, Latinos. Hardly a section of the sprawling area does not feature some aspect of this cultural mix. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Fairfax Avenue, just north of Beverly Boulevard.
Drive past Farmers Market and CBS and you enter a different world--a world of Middle East music twanging from a record store; signs advertising kosher food at Canter’s restaurant, delicatessens and small butcher shops; women scurrying from bakeries to greengrocers, their heads covered with scarfs. Sandwiched in is a small Jewish bookstore whose large awning nearly hides the treasures inside.
Strolling into Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store is like falling into the walled city of Old Jerusalem. A garish array of silver candlesticks, spice boxes and jewelry fills the walls lining the long, narrow store on one side, sacramental wine bottles and every imaginable book on Judaism flank the other. More often than not, customers are warmly greeted in Yiddish, sometimes with a hug.
According to the Solomons, the store is more than a business; it is an institution. Chaya Weingarten Solomon, 88, started the first Jewish religious articles business on the West Coast in the front room of her home in Boyle Heights 50 years ago, selling things sent by her brother in Israel. A fourth-generation native of what was then Palestine, Solomon had reluctantly followed her husband, Elimelech, to this country in 1936. She came with their daughter and three sons, the youngest being 10-year-old Nathan, who had never seen his father.
Elimelech Solomon, also a fourth-generation Israeli, died 15 years ago. He had come to the United States a decade earlier to find his fortune, and 10 year later he had enough money to send for his family. Having traveled in 44 states, the elder Solomon settled in Southern California because the climate was like his native land.
As his wife’s little business began to grow, it was moved to a table in a neighborhood butcher shop where they were not charged rent. Then the Solomons moved to a small key shop in Boyle Heights where they, a realtor and the key shop split the rent three ways.
“The door to our home was always open, with everyone invited to eat and there was always singing,” remembers Miriam Solomon Brumer, the baby of the family, who was born in the United States after the family was reunited. “There were no kosher restaurants in Los Angeles, so when people came to town and needed to eat, people sent them to our house. During the war when soldiers needed a seder to come to, we always had soldiers at the table.” A seder is the feast commemorating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, observed in the home by reading the Haggada on the eve of the first day of Passover and also on the second day by Orthodox Jews outside of Israel. Passover is an eight-day celebration that began at sundown Wednesday night with the first seder and ends at sunset on May 1.
Business Is Booming
As a result, business at Solomon’s has been booming for the past several weeks. A holiday feeling is in the air as customers lug out sacks of sacramental wine, candles, a talis (prayer shawl) and seder plates--plates with separate compartments for the significant foods, such as bitter herbs, eggs, celery used in the seder celebration.
The store has also been busy because the Solomons are celebrating their 50th year in business, the last 30 of them on Fairfax. They left Boyle Heights when they saw that other Jewish people were moving to the new area. Among the things they took with them was a large, black, solid brass cash register with a crank on its side, which they bought secondhand from the butcher, making it older than the business.
The store is still a family affair, managed by the two remaining Solomon sons, Philip and Nathan. Although both men are trained for other professions, they joined the family business because their parents needed help. Philip, a combat engineer who crossed the Rhine in action in World War II, attended college to become an engineer and Nathan is an engraver and cantor (a singer in a synagogue who leads the congregation in prayer).
People who have known the Solomons during their 50 years in the United States, and some even longer, have sent letters or have come into the store to offer congratulations on their anniversary.
“One rabbi was here who had a party to celebrate the day I was born,” said 61-year-old Nathan Solomon. Their family physician, who Chaya Solomon met when they first came to the United States, was also there.
The matriarch, now suffering from arthritis, goes into the store nearly every day. “I would miss it if I couldn’t come here. A day I can’t come in, I feel very miserable,” she said.
“She sees immediately if something is missing or is moved,” Nathan Solomon said. “She is an amazing salesman.”
Most of the family agree, however, that selling is not the only function of the store. “One sale can take two hours because you’re talking more than making business,” daughter Brumer said. “It’s a social thing, like when people used to go to the synagogue for social things, now they come to Solomon’s.”
“It’s like coming into an old family,” said Rebecca Braverman, who grew up next door to the Solomons in Boyle Heights. She came into the store to pick up some candlesticks for her mother for the Passover celebration. Another family, who had driven up from San Diego and had not seen the Solomons since 1949, stopped in to say hello. Chaya Solomon, now known to most people as Ema-- Hebrew for mother, said she forgets most of the faces, but is always approached by people who remember her.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember the people and I feel awkward. I just know we always had people in the house, even non-Jewish people,” Chaya Solomon said.
Among some of the Solomons’ patrons have been show-business personalities. “Eddie Cantor used to come in here,” Chaya Solomon said. Their shop was filmed for a 1982 Walter Matthau movie, “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” and Elimelech Solomon’s beard and piercing eyes were apparently right for bit parts in two movies, “The Last Angry Man,” Paul Muni’s last film, in 1959, and “Once Upon a Honeymoon” with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, made in 1942.
Some of the memorabilia lining the walls and overpowering the back room have been in the inventory almost from the beginning, admit the Solomons who, like many close families when they get together, often speak at once. The back room contains large menorahs--seven-branched candelabra that are a traditional symbol of Judaism--and large Torah scrolls--the Scriptures specially hand-printed on parchment--which are sometimes rented as show-business props.
In the front are thousands of 78 rpm records of both religious and folk music, kept in mint condition in hundreds of record album books.
The books cover everything, from the parting of the Red Sea in pop-up three dimension to Hebrew versions of the Smurfs and “Cat in the Hat.” Cookbooks help people prepare kosher Chinese dinners and original Hebrew texts are available for Judaic scholars. The two brothers, wearing yarmulkes (skullcaps) at work in observance of their orthodoxy, regularly answer telephone calls requesting information about Jewish customs and rituals. While in their teens, the brothers went to New York to study in a yeshiva, a Jewish rabbinical seminary.
Recognized on Vacation
Although the Solomons are so well known that Nathan Solomon has been recognized by people while on vacation with his wife in Mexico and Hawaii and they have regular customers from as far away as Australia, the Solomons say they have not built up material wealth.
“We have no houses, no land. After all these years, I pay rent for my store, rent for my apartment,” the business’ founder said.
“When our father made money, he sent it back to charities in Israel, probably 90% he gave away. That’s why we never expanded,” Nathan Solomon explained. “You can’t take money with you, but you can take your good name, your good deeds.”
Even though Nathan Solomon says the store will be there for the next 25 years, 64-year-old Philip Solomon, the quiet one in the family, has plans for him and his wife to retire, at least partially, he said.
“I never meant to come in and work,” said his wife, Marcie. “I just came in to help out, only to work part time. And here I am--20 years later.” Now, however, the Solomons are not only working with their third generation of customers, they are also attracting new ones.
“I come every Thursday. I love it. We have a street just like this at home,” said Hendel Schwartz, who moved to West Los Angeles from Melbourne, Australia, seven years ago.
“This is like going to Israel,” said Caryl Wiener, who grew up in Long Beach. “This is our outing. We do Fairfax.”