Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Better know a book sale

In this post, I interview Tzvi Feifel, the CEO of the Y.U's fancy as-seen-in-the-New-York-Times Seforim Sale. Though I attempt to get him on the record regarding the inner workings of the sale, and some of the strange decisions its managers seem to make, I'm not sure I succeeded. You be the judge.

The interview was conducted by email, which is why it reads so bizarrely, and why Tzvi may seem unresponsive at times. For this reason, I should stress that Tzvi was completely cooperative, and did not attempt to tap dance around any of my questions. Also, he wants me to tell you that the sale closes on Sunday, February 27, so if you snooze you lose.

Read the whole thing after the jump

About Tzvi Feifel
My name is Tzvi Feifel, and I am the CEO of this year's sale. I'm a music major here at YU (yes, there are at least 5 of us!), and I'll please God be graduating in May. In case you're wondering about the entire "music major" thing, I plan on going into business, as the classical music industry is basically a dead end. I began here at the sale as a section manager two years ago, was second in command last year, and was offered and accepted the position of CEO this year.

How does one climb up the ranks to CEO? Is it fairly straightforward or is their backstabbing and machavilian intrigue?
I was offered the position by last year's board. Before exiting, each board chooses their successors. How does one get appointed to the board? By hard work, by proving themselves loyal to the sale. Lord knows we don't get fairly compensated for our work - such is the reality of a company with high expenses and a low profit margin. And thus, before exiting, each board goes through names of people they feel have proven their loyalty and dedication, as the sale wouldn't survive an undedicated board.

Why do you think the job was offered to you this year?
I'd like to believe the job was offered to me because I was the best man for the job. As second in command last year, I was best poised to take over. I was familiar with all the computer systems, as well as how the sale operates on a daily basis.

Who decides which books to sell? Does the administration have any oversight at all? Do they ever tell you what you can or can't sell? 
There is no administrative oversight. If someone sees a book they don't like, we will most probably pull it, as we want everyone to be comfortable within the confines of our sale.

Why wasn't there any Kugel this year? In the past Kugel was present. Why Sarna, this year, but no Kugel? Why no Alter? How do you draw the line when it comes to bib crit? And, from the other side, why no Shem Mishmuel or Hasidic sefarim? Why are there so many silly sefarim and why do they end up on the catch-all English table called "scholarship?" 
We tried to get Kugel this year. University Presses are notoriously difficult to deal with, and although we tried, we were ultimately unable to obtain any Harvard titles. Regarding Bible criticism (as well as other sensitive topics), there are no specific guidelines. We do our best to order books that treat these serious and important subjects with sensitivity, while at the same time being cautious to offend as few people as possible. I could be incorrect, but I believe we do have the Shem Mishmuel. We most certainly have ample books on chasidut. Anything we don't have is not the result of spite or a carefully calculated scheme. Just an oversight - which are bound to happen considering we're all full time students. And we nonetheless bring in around 1 million dollars in 3 weeks.

Why so many Holocaust titles? Why were there so many Littman Library titles this year? Is there a story behind that?
The same answer applies to your questions regarding Littman and Holocaust titles. We order that which looks interesting. At the end of the day, we're trying to be a service to the community. If something looks interesting, we get it.

I don't think I saw any Slifkin this year either. Reason?
We most definitely have Slifkin's books this year - they're in English Mussar Machshava. At one point we had all 4 of them. He even stopped by last Sunday to say hi.

Whose idea is it to feature so many books by and about the Rav (not that this is a bad idea, but whose idea was it? And is there pressure on you to sell them?)
I do not know whose idea it was to initially have a Rav section, but numbers don't lie. That section is always one of our most profitable.

Why aren't you selling Dovbear on the Parsha?
We aren't selling Dovbear on the Parsha because we were never contacted by you to sell it.

How do you advertise? Is there any special effort to draw people from outside the YU world? What is the advertising budget?
The sale used to advertise in newspapers, through ads and the like. We opted to not go that route this year, choosing instead to use social media to our advantage. It's free, and it has the potential to reach so many more people.

Is it really as much of a social scene as the Times implied? To what do you attribute that?
The sale is definitely a huge social scene, definitely as much as implied by the Times. People come not only for the books, but also for the "hock", as it were. Between the music over the sound system, the live events we have, etc, the sale attracts many different types of people. We are attempting to be a service to the community, and I think on the whole we succeed.

How many hours does the average worker spend on it? How are the compensated?
Workers are paid with store credit known as "Seforim Sale dollars." Hours are random. Some put in less than 30, while others easily amass hundreds of them. It all just depends on how motivated people are and how interested they are in working

What books are the best sellers this year?

Top 5 sellers so far:
1) Darosh Darash Yosef: Discourses of Rav Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parsha by Rabbi David (
2) The Laws of Niddah by Rabbi Sobolofsky (
3) Divrei Harav by Rav Schachter (
4) Festivals of Faith by Rabbi Lamm (
5) Covenant & Conversation: Exodus by Rabbi Sacks

How much money does the sale earn? Do you keep histroical records? Which was the best year? To what do you attribute that?
We make around a million every year. Last year we fell just short, but that wasn't entirely unexpected considering the shape our economy was in. 3 years ago, in 2008 the sale brought in around 1.3. But they spent over 100K on advertising, so one has to wonder how worth it it was.

Sum up your feelings about the sale, and why you think it matters.
Bottom line: The sale is a service to the community, one that people wait for the sale year round. It's not purely a business, but a way for people to socialize, listen to music, and expose themselves to major scholarship. We represent YU, and we are aware of this. In fact, we are proud to have such an enormous responsibility. And that's the last point I'll make - the sale is a source of tremendous pride for us. Not only because it's an enormous undertaking, but because it puts us on the map and shows the world what a bunch of college students can do. 15,000 people walk through our doors annually, and we have over 13,000 individual titles on the floor. That's not too bad, considering the short amount of time we have to set up. All in all, as a service to the community, I think we're doing a pretty good job. And at the end of the day, that's what counts.

Ask your own questions on the thread, if you wish

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