Judaica Shops Roll with the Times

(Courtesy: giftsbygilda.com)
(Courtesy: giftsbygilda.com)

Tucked away on a quiet street in the basement of a Baltimore residence near Pikesville sits one of the area’s best-kept secrets of Judaica items: Gifts  by Gilda.

Known to loyal clients as “The Museum,” Gifts by Gilda, the brainchild of Gilda Naiman, has specialized in the selling of sterling silver items, many of which are imported from around the United States and Israel, since its founding in 1985.

At this time of the year, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur quickly approaching, sterling silver apple and honey dishes and jars are among the most popular items for Naiman’s customers.

“Once someone finds out about us, they always come back,” said Naiman, who added her business is performing as well as it ever has. “If someone asks around, they will find us, and we tend to find that our sales pick up for the High Holidays because of our unique selections. We pride ourselves on having the most competitive, cheapest prices while offering the best quality of products.”

Naiman, 52, and several others in the Greater Baltimore area are among a shrinking landscape of Judaica store owners and employees who are fighting to remain relevant in the ever-changing retail industry.

Shabsi Schneider, a 65-year-old Park Heights resident who has owned and  operated Shabsi’s Judaica Center for the last two-plus decades, said his store at 6830 Reisterstown Road continues to thrive despite increased competition from online retailers.

“We have been able to develop a strong following from the different communities around our store,” Schneider said. “People who live in areas that don’t have Judaica stores, they come to us a lot for whatever needs they may have.”

Just last year, however, Pern’s Hebrew Book & Gift Shop, a longtime staple in the area, closed its doors after more than 41 years. Several years ago, Naiman closed her second location on Reisterstown Road, citing that she no longer needed the extra space.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism, formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute, said Judaica shops in general will have to adapt to avoid falling by the wayside.

“I think, like other Jewish institutions, the Judaica shop will have to become a mission-drive institution if it’s going to survive into the next generation,” Olitzky said. “So the question is: How can a Judaica shop reimagine  itself as providing a service that isn’t accessible?”

That’s a question Schneider has attempted to answer with his well-stocked assortment of Jewish supplies and gifts.

According to Schneider, who ships orders all around the country, his shop is the largest retailer of Jewish books (Hebrew and English) and Judaica  outside the state of New York.

At “The Museum,” there is no shortage of sterling silver items, many imported from Israel. (Justin Silberman)
At “The Museum,” there is no shortage of sterling silver items, many imported from Israel. (Justin Silberman)

“I try to keep all new titles on everything we carry,” he said. “I think that people find that when they come into the store, they are able to pick up  exactly what they want.”

In addition to apples and honey dishes and shofars — which Schneider said have been flying off the shelves — some of the most popular items he sells are Jewish calendars, candlesticks and children’s toys and games. Schneider, like Naiman, said his High Holidays sales are as high as he can recall in recent memory.

“A lot people come into our store not knowing exactly what they want to buy,” Schneider said. “But some people want to browse through the store to pick up and touch these items. I think one of the big advantages we have over going just online is that if you don’t know what you want, you can come in and browse, try it out and buy it if you choose.”

Synagogues have also had to modify their approach of how they manage their Judaica shops. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, for example, houses one of the largest Judaica shops of any synagogue in the area and receives a lot of foot traffic from the various events it hosts throughout the year.

According to BHC gift shop business manager Ann Fishkin, the congregation and shop put a heavy emphasis on stocking up with items from local  vendors to help appeal to members and visitors alike.

While she said things have been a bit quieter than she would have hoped, Fishkin is pleased the congregation’s members still support the shop, and the shop, in turn, is able to help the congregation.

“Our goal has always been to supply Jewish families with Judaica in their homes, so we try to buy items that we think will be appropriate for those homes,” Fishkin said.

Olitzky said there is a critical element all Judaica shops can always offer that patrons won’t readily find behind a computer screen, laptop, smartphone or tablet.

“If you look at the changing retail landscape, the stores that are surviving — with the  exception of the big-box stores — are those that are providing products and services that give a hands-on experience,” he said. “That’s a very integral experience in terms of Jewish education. People still want an opportunity for that local pizza shop, that local dry cleaners, etc.”



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