Four Hours and an Empire| November 23, 2021
When he ordered a few seforim for his friends, he never imagined he was creating the shining star of Gateshead
Just four hours. Four out of twenty-four. He never meant it to grow so big, so all-encompassing. He didn’t dream in quads or quarters, but it happened like one stumbling upon four pebbles of life’s opportunity, creating a moraine of rough-hewn diamonds.
It began small. Tall, broad shouldered, bearded when others were clean-shaven, young Yosef (Joe) Lehmann was known as the epitome of hasmadah in Gateshead Yeshiva. Born with a brilliant mind, he was the proverbial sponge who soaked up whatever he learned. And in the days when seforim were scarce, he would order seforim for his friends from overseas in order to enhance their learning.
Joe Lehmann moved on to the Gateshead kollel, established and led by Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, who eventually requested of this trustworthy and erudite ben Torah to become the part-time secretary of the kollel. Meanwhile, he continued his side hobby of obtaining seforim for friends, until it began to grow, evolving from a few invoices into “The Shop: J. Lehmann Hebrew Booksellers” — a humble shop with an equally humble proprietor. But to his customers, friends, and neighbors, he and his store were the shining beacon of Gateshead.
And slowly it became four. Open for only four hours a day, two in the afternoon and two in the evening. And when a family simchah took preference, it was closed. No prior warning, just a handwritten note on that dusty, brown door. It went together with the dusty windowpanes and net curtains hung askew; yet behind the scenes, history was quietly in the making.
It was generally the first port of call for incoming students, their introduction to this Torah town where they obtained the seforim they needed, changed their dollars, and often received a few words of wisdom to last a lifetime.
Thousands of former yeshivah bochurim and seminary girls will tap in to their reserves of nostalgia and recall 20 Cambridge Terrace. No storefront or enticing neon sign, just a nondescript little house with an overgrown garden adjacent to the Lehmann home, a shop whose exterior belied the inside experience: books on every surface, every possible space and every free inch. Three stories of books, with barely room to breathe, never mind browse.
And reigning over his seforim kingdom was the ever-affable Rabbi Lehmann. Self-effacing, still tall, still broad-shouldered, beard streaked with grey, short-sleeved. Inclining his head from behind those towering shelves, he’d survey the group that had gathered, acknowledge each customer’s requirements, and then, with his mental list of perhaps 20 seforim, he would trudge up those uncarpeted stairs, passing row upon row of shelves, pulling out books en route, and return to the waiting group, distributing each item to its buyer. He would suggest gift ideas, tally the total by the daily exchange rate, deduct discounts for bnei Torah. His brain was the calculator, loose change was in the tobacco tin, notes were in the cocoa tin, and a red ball point pen was always at the ready, together with a witticism, a pun, maybe an obscure halachah.
Just four hours. But even after hours the shop was the place to be for those of us privileged to be in close proximity and watch. The cricket wicket chalked on the front wall, as the delivery truck would trundle down the street blocking traffic. We would watch Rabbi Lehmann single-handedly carry parcels on those broad shoulders back and forth, back and forth. And the mailman with his special deliveries could ring on after hours too. They must have wondered, but we didn’t; we were awed and enamored by this tremendous individual, a bulwark of emunah, honesty, and kindness, running a one-man-operation that embodied everything he stood for.
Out of hours, some of us lucky ones could enter The Shop through another entrance, via the Lehmann home. In the kitchen, surrounded by piles of books and invoices, rolls of tape and envelopes, Rabbi Lehmann would be packing parcels and sticking stamps. He was a busy man, a talmid chacham, a baal korei, a sought-after chavrusa with the elite of Gateshead, yet he always had time to share his encyclopaedic knowledge, provide an apt English synonym, a quote from the Gemara, or a joke for a child.
Four hours soon became impractical. With the massive expansion of Jewish book publishers and ever-new titles, Rabbi Lehmann soon realized that the shop had to relocate. Now there’s a huge warehouse in nearby Jarrow, distributing Judaica worldwide, as well as a modernized local retail store. Rabbi Lehmann was involved in every facet of the business until his last year — he passed away at age 92 in 2018. While The Shop no longer exists, those four hours still resonate in the thousands of seforim being learned and in each inspired customer.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 887)
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