Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, founded in Boyle Heights

One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city Los Angeles. They are one of the shops on my list which I feel like I need to visit during the holidays, along with the Jewish bakeries and kosher food shops.

Over they years I have made this trek countless times, to bring all the essential items of Jewish life back with me this side of the river. Many times buying from shops in the Fairfax, which were once located in Boyle Heights when the eastside used to be the beating heart of the Jewish community!

Solomon’s Judaica was founded almost 80 years ago out of the Solomon family’s home living room on Chicago Street in Boyle Heights. Later opening a small shop on Brooklyn Ave (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.). They then relocated to the Fairfax district, with the mass of Jewish migration which went westward some 70 years ago.

Solomon’s is among those handful of time-loved shops, which Jewish families have been coming to for generations. Over the years I have met many people who tell me that this is where their family came to buy all their religious Jewish items – a yarmulke, a tallis, a prayerbook, etc. To purchase all the items one needed for their special occasions – bris, bar mitzvahs, weddings, etc.

Read this fine history compiled by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. with the help of the Solomon’s family :

Elimelech Solomon, the fourth generation of his family to be born and live in Jerusalem (in what was then Palestine) made a fateful decision in 1926. ElimelechChayaSolomonAt that time he owned a grocery store to support his family. During an Arab pogrom, his store was looted and ransacked and he was left with nothing. Hoping to find a better life for his family, Elimelech left for America, not unlike his ancestor Reb Zalman Solomon who, a century before Elimelech, left his native Lithuania for a better life and became the first Ashkenazi Jew to arrive in Jerusalem in 1812.

Elimelech settled in Boyle Heights where he was barely able to make enough money to sustain himself. First he worked as a m’shulach (fundraiser), collecting money for Talmud Torah religious school and Bikur Cholim, hospital care. Later he served as a mashgiach, inspecting kosher meats. Back in Jerusalem, Chaya, then pregnant with their fourth child and the three other children had to survive on what little money she could earn by helping neighbors with ironing and odd jobs.

Elimelech wrote home often, but it would be ten years before he had enough money to bring his family to the States. In 1936, Chaya and the four children (Masha, Pinchas, Moishe, and Naftali, a ten-year-old who had never seen his father), traveled from Jaffa to Marseilles by boat, then by train to the port of LeHavre, where they boarded a boat to New York. Eventually they arrived in Los Angeles by bus.

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The Solomon family home, where their front room became their first showroom.

To help with expenses, Chaya’s brother in Israel sent Judaic artifacts for her to sell to the growing Jewish community. Chaya placed a sign in their front room window and soon customers came to inspect her wares, displayed on a table in the living room where, at night, the three sons slept. People came to buy at all hours of the day. Often the Solomons were one of the first to learn about upcoming important events in the community–a marriage, a bris, a bar mitzvah–when families came to buy ceremonial items and gifts. From these humble beginnings was born one of the first Judaica businesses on the West Coast, Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store.

As they became more successful, Elimelech and Chaya moved the business out of the house and set up shop in a section of a butcher’s store and later a key shop. Eventually they expanded and moved into their own store on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue). From Israel, they imported gift items such as olive wood objects and filigree jewelry. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that if anything religious was needed—a machzor, a tallis, a yarmulke—it could be found at Solomon’s.

The Solomon children helped out in the store occasionally doing whatever was needed: from waiting on customers or weaving lulavim to polishing the silver or cleaning. One more child, daughter Miriam, was born in Los Angeles. As a young girl, Miriam sat outside the store, selling Jewish new years cards and encouraging passers-by to come into the store. Chaya’s keen business skills complimented Elimelech’s gregarious nature. He loved to kibbitz with customers. He used to say, “King Solomon had a thousand wives, but I have only one wife and thousands of items in the store.” Bills for books the couple sold to synagogues and religious schools often went unpaid because of Elimelech’s generosity. Chaya would prepare dinner in the morning before she opened the store so the family would have dinner ready for them. Elimelech would come in later and unpack and price merchandise until midnight.

The couple’s ability to speak several languages, including Yiddish, English, Hebrew, and Arabic was vital to their success as shopkeepers. Chaya also spoke Spanish, which she learned from her Sephardic neighbors in Jerusalem. In an article published in The Jewish Journal when Solomon’s celebrated its 50th year in business, it noted that the store was “probably the only place in L.A. where good, old-fashioned discussion on culture, politics and life are more important than moving the merchandise.”

The Solomons attended the Breed Street Shul, but during High Holy Days, Elimelech served as a cantor at other synagogues. He passed down his skills to sons Nathan and Moishe who often performed holiday cantorial duties as adults. Their daughter Masha sang solos and duets with her father as she sat in the first row among the congregants.

After twelve years in Boyle Heights, as the Jewish population moved westward, the Solomons moved their store to its final location on Fairfax Avenue. The long narrow store was lined with shelves on each side. One side held candlesticks, spice boxes, and jewelry; the other side had wine and every imaginable book on Judaism from ancient texts to Jewish cookbooks and Jewish newspapers in many languages. Jews from around the world ordered items through their mail order business. Even after Elimelech’s death, Chaya and her sons Philip (Pinchas) and Nathan (Naftali) continued to run the flourishing business. The sons who were educated at a New York yeshiva, also answered phone calls received daily from people with questions on Jewish customs and rituals. Despite suffering from debilitating arthritis, Chaya continued to work well into her eighties.

Finally, in 1986, after being in business for more than 50 years, the family sold the store to Jews from Iran who retained the store’s name because of its good reputation. Though she no longer worked there, Chaya sometimes visited the store in her wheelchair, greeting old customers and answering the new owners’ questions such as how to price certain items.

Today, Elimelech, Chaya, and their two children Masha and Moishe are buried in Israel. Philip, Nathan, Miriam, their spouses, and many of the ten grandchildren fondly remember Elimelech and Chaya and the legendary bookstore known simply as Solomon’s.

This year I needed to buy an old school styled olive oil Chanukah menorah (chanukiah), to bring back home and to share the festival lights with the community in Boyle Heights! I couldn’t think of a better place to buy from.

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Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store. now at 438 N. Fairfax Ave.

Nor could I think of a better way to bring our shared history full circle.

Though my choice to buy from this store is not just based in tradition and the impulse to buy from a shop which is as familiar as an old friend. It is to show support a fine business which is falling on tough times.

In recent years, Solomon’s has been forced to downsize and restructure due to rent hikes. They have also moved storefronts a couple times over the past few years, and are now located on the other side of Fairfax from their longtime location. Now situated directly across the street from Canter’s Deli. In a storefront which used to be part of good old Simon Rutberg’s Hatikvah Jewish record shop, as revealed by the remnants of the old neon record sign out front.

Fairfax has for several years been feeling the stress of urban change; as the hip-hop street-ware scene has taken shape in the district, raising rents ever higher and displacing several older Jewish shops, a creating some frictions. And as gentrification has taken hold here, recently being most egregiously displayed in this very district.

Some people wonder if these changes are going to put the distinct Jewish character of this area in jeopardy.

I personally doubt that the Jewish flavor of the area is going to quickly disappear. As Fairfax Ave. is still home to many of our favorite cultural Jewish hot-spots and Jewish-style eateries, which maintain this areas own character which is distinct from that of the more orthodox community that has pushed ever westward into todays “kosher corridor” of the Pico-Robertson.

Though all this change going on does leave many wondering what the future is for the handful of religious Jewish shops and institutions such as these, as Fairfax has for some years been moving away from being the central focal point of religious Jewish life in LA.

While this shop has certainly never made the owners rich and has always been but a struggling little business, for generations it has enriched the Jewish community both in Boyle Heights and Fairfax. Let’s hope it’s legacy and charm lasts for many years to come!

Recommended articles:

The original Solomon’s Hebrew Bookstore storefront location:

About the Solomon’s family and their early years in business:

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