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On Site: In Fine Print

Eytan Kobre

Profits and prophets abound when your customers are the People of the Book. What goes into creating what might be the world’s biggest annual seforim sale?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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Avi Borgen calls the cross-section of customers at YU’s annual seforim sale a “hotbed of achdus.” Among the hundreds making their way from section to section one day in 2016 were a Rachmastrivker chassid, one of the YU roshei yeshivah, a balabos from the nearby Breuer’s community — and a woman decked out in kippah and tzitzis (Photos: Amir Levy)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the popular YU Seforim Sale — three weeks, 15,000 visitors, over 12,000 titles, and hundreds of thousands of volumes. What goes into creating what might be the biggest annual seforim acquisition event in the world?

Seforim Palooza

Sy Syms was a New York clothier whose famous ad campaign featured the tag line, “An Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer.” Each year around this time, students at the Yeshiva University (YU) business school named for Syms hold the largest Jewish book sale in North America, helping to create very educated consumers, indeed — in Torah, that is.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of “The YU Seforim Sale,” a three-week-long “seforim palooza” drawing more than 15,000 people from the tristate area and beyond and grossing close to $1 million in sales. The attractively designed tables and bookcases feature upwards of 12,000 titles, ranging from Gemara, Tanach, chassidus and halachah to history and biography, from novels and cookbooks to children’s books and music CDs.

Labor Intensive

The February weather has turned nippy in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, where Yeshiva University’s web of buildings occupies nearly five full blocks of real estate. But ever since the blazing hot days of last July, when YU marketing major Avi Sebbag was chosen as CEO of this year’s sale, he has been laser-focused on these three weeks, running from February 5-26.

In his three years working the sale, Avi Sebbag only recalls one time he couldn’t fulfill a customer’s request: “A guy from Monsey who said he owned 150 peirushim on Tehillim was looking for something he didn’t yet have. We couldn’t add anything to that”

The Passaic resident, a three-year veteran of the sale, presides over a frenzy of pre-sale activity, ranging from placing orders with dozens of publishers and suppliers, to taking delivery of thousands of boxes of seforim and books, to renting, constructing and stocking scores of bookcases and display tables, to data entry and labeling for every one of hundreds of thousands of volumes. For the first time, this year’s sale ventures beyond the printed word into offering discount prices on tzitzis and talleisim of every size and material imaginable — including two types of techeiles.

Although the effort needed to make this event launch-ready gives new meaning to the phrase “labor-intensive,” Sebbag had hoped to end the longstanding Seforim Sale “minhag” of pulling an all-nighter on the Motzaei Shabbos before the sale kicks off. But his bloodshot eyes on the first morning of the sale indicate that it’s one performance goal he wasn’t able to meet.

Not Just a Job

The engine that makes the Seforim Sale hum as smoothly as it does is the all-volunteer staff of 97 students, who do the intensive groundwork to get the event launch-ready and then take shifts staffing the sale itself. Avi Sebbag says that since the sale takes place during the school semester, the key is for the students to put the initial set-up in motion while they’re still on midwinter break, nearly a month before the sale begins.

The current year’s upper-level managerial staff is selected by last year’s management team, and they, in turn, fill out the staff positions by sending applications to all YU and Stern College students. In interviewing applicants, they’re looking, according to Avi Sebbag, for “personable, nice people, with yiras Shamayim, who have an understanding that this is not a job but an opportunity to help Jews acquire sifrei kodesh and quality reading material and become better Jews.”

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