Buying Tools and Appliances - Shopping for Gifts and Furniture

Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Living in Jerusalem

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Israel is a complicated place to shop for durable goods. When it comes to items like cars, your choices are limited by various government granted monopolies (and 100% plus taxes), but there's also a different tradition in shop keeping in Israel, as opposed to the U.S.. Walmart and Target are only the latest headline phenomena in "destroying small town America" bringing crocodile tears from consumers who buy all of their goods at other chains. The big shock to American retailers came with the Sears catalog back in the late 1800's, which I've read depressed prices that could be charged in small town stores by a factor of three times. In Israel, having your own shop is the dream of the burgeoning retailer, not being a manager in a large store or a chain, even with the benefits, etc. Part of the reason is that Israeli pay scales are whacko and they just don't pay retail managers for beans. A store, in Israel, can consist of a room in an apartment or a shack in the courtyard for starters, growing into a commercial space you couldn't fit a queen size bed into. People often make a living selling one or two specialty items, right next to or across the street from somebody selling exactly the same products.

The pinnacle of Israeli retail, as far as the rents go, is having a shop in a mall. Malls vary in design from American style to weird Euro-architecture with huge open spaces, and empty retail space or stores with limited hours in failing malls is a common sight. Music is often played loudly enough by retailers trying to attract a young crowd as to make shopping unpleasant for people who don't like noise. However, security is good (metal detectors on the entrances), the public bathrooms are usually cleaner than those found in public institutions, and food courts and coffee shops abound. The big mall in Jerusalem is Malka, an easy destination by bus or a healthy walk (about an hour) from the center of town. The mall is right next to the soccer stadium and in front on the train station. Along with a ton of boutique shops, they have some of the bigger retail chains as anchors, I often go there for the Office Depot.

Aside from Malka, there are smaller malls in Talpiyot, Givat Shaul, and a couple odd ones between Yafo and Agrippas.One of these was intended to provide an indoor alternative/replacement to Mahane Yehuda, with the same sorts of vegetable and food stalls on the first floor. Unfortunately for people who bought in, they put a rather nice supermarket on the second floor! Besides, the notion of an indoor shuk doesn't work well, and the place is usually abandoned. The larger retail mall up the street is one of the European hybrids that doesn't serve any purpose well. Small retail stores are scattered throughout the city, with a large concentration up and down Yafo, Ben Yehuda and King George. The religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim is also a shopping destination with a large number of small clothing stores and small electronics shops, not to mention the ever present bakeries. The two real shuks are Mahane Yehuda between Agrippas and Yafo (and the two failing malls) and they Arab market in the old city. The Arab market is something of a tourist trap, with T-shirt shops every third store and loads of gift items, mainly Jewish and Christian. People who have shopped there all of their lives say it's still the best place to get good prices, but only if you know before hand exactly how much to pay. There's also a problem with pick-pockets, and I even know of a woman who lost her purse, despite wearing it crossways with the strap over her neck. Apparently somebody in the crowd just cut the strap of with a razor and disappeared.

The shuks are mainly cash-and-carry operations, pretty much everybody else accepts credit cards as well, but International credit card holders beware of the fees that have been piling up lately. I believe my card now carries a 3% fee for all international transactions, plus a money changing fee. I haven't seen a travelers check used anywhere in so long that I have no idea if they are still accepted. While some retailers, especially those in the Arab market, are happy to take foreign currency, don't expect a good rate. I've seen American kids in bars paying their tabs with dollars, only to find they're getting 70% to 80% of the official rate. The days that Israelis hungered for dollars are long gone, it's just a hassle for most of them. If you bring foreign cash with you, you're better off changing it at the numerous money exchange shops where you'll lose a percent or two rather than ten times that. Israeli banks must be the worst in the world when it comes to holding an account, so in fifteen years of coming here every winter I've never opened one. I find that my ATM card gets me the bank exchange rate published that day with no extra fees, as long as I go to the right bank.

It's often true in life that you get what you pay for, but there's an odd phenomena in Israel where small shops try to meet the demand from people who don't have much to spend by selling them garbage. A few examples from the tool category. A few years ago, my dad bought an inexpensive drill index for my nephew, after buying him a brand-name electric drill. When they went to drill a hole in the wall to insert a hanger, the drill bit untwisted! This is something I'd never even heard of in my life. Drills can certainly break or dull quickly, but to untwist means there was never even an attempt to harden the metal, and there's no way these bits could be considered anything other than toys. Last year I was knocking out a quick repair on a laptop computer and need a small philips bit, and I made the mistake of buy a universal screwdriver kit from the local hardware shop. By the time I got to the second screw, the tip of the screwdriver was disintegrating before my eyes. Finally, I stopped in a reputable looking hardware store to buy 19mm wrench the other day, open and closed end. At about $4.00, it was appreciable higher priced than buying the full metric set for about $6.00, but as I walked to the checkout, I gave it a little flex test. Boy, did it flex. I though that was pretty funny and flexed it further, curious if it would just break, and the shop owner started giving me a hard time. I though that was pretty funny too since I can't flex a decent wrench at all and told him as much before putting it back. As I went to hang it up, I noticed that the legend on it read "Chrom Vanadium." When the guy who makes the tool die spells chrome vanadium without an "e" you know that it's a back-room operation in the far east making tools out of pot metal. WOuldn't shock me if spelling "chrome" wrong is somebody's idea of a legal trick to protect themselves from false labeling.

You can buy good tools in Israel, but you'll find that you have to pay about double American pricing. I don't know how much of it relates to import duties and how much is just mark-up on the part of the retailers. While some small shops will have a mix of quality tools and garbage, some of their quality tools may turn out to be knock-offs, so I'd be careful. You're better off going to lumber yards or commercial tool and hardware stores frequented by contractors, or to higher end retail chains. The same is true for electronics and electrical appliances, though everybody offers a warranty (achraioot) on even the silly stuff, like a $10 watch you would never bother taking back. The problem with warrantees that are a shop warranty rather than a manufacturer warranty is that the shops may come and go as often as I do. If you're talking about spending real money on an appliance, I'd shop for a responsible retailer as much as for price. Most of the good appliances sold in Israel are European, the Israeli stuff can be pretty good if you stick to appliances that are Israel specific, but the Far East stuff that tries to work "American" into the label is usually garbage.

Furniture shopping in Israel is just different than shopping in the U.S., unless you are willing to go to the very best stores and pay a couple times American prices. There are simply more gradations of furniture here, starting stuff I would term "unsafe" that couldn't get sold in America or Europe due to liability problems. SOme years ago, I bought a bunk bed at a factory store, and went with their top of the line. My memory is that it was about $800 for a two bed unit built out of 10 cm (a little less than 4x4) knotty Scandinavian spruce. At all but the highest levels here, knot filled evergreen wood is considered the prime furniture wood, Most of the consumer stuff is built out of laminates, high density stuff that weighs a ton, or even particle board. Custom built furniture isn't anything to brag about either since the there's no quality cabinet making tradition. Even if you order shelves made from solid wood (and you might still get veneer) they'll likely be cased with plastic retainers under the shelves and exposed screws. The idea of cutting a mortise or a dovetail joint just seems superfluous to most "craftsman" here, which is why the good stuff is imported at very high prices.

If you want to give somebody wine or booze for a present, buy it in the duty free of you own country before you get on the plane. The markup here on decent imported alcohol run into the hundreds of percent, with most of it being taxes. Books are also expensive here, but the rest of the world is catching up. I used to think that $15 to $20 for a fiction paperback was expensive, but it's not bad when you think about it, just looks expensive in shekels. The used book market in Jerusalem really is expensive, compared to the U.S., you can pay $5 to $7 for a beat up English novel you can barely read, but on the other hand, you can sell it back at an inflated value as well. Something I've never personally shopped for in Israel or anywhere else for the matter is Jewelry, but I keep my ears open. The best source for Jewelry, providing you know what you are doing, is from "unofficial" sellers, who deal in cash and probably don't pay taxes. They are usually religious people with connections in the diamond trade. Cheap silver jewelry can be bought on the street, and there's a sort of a silver market at the foot of Hillel in Jerusalem at night, though I've never paid attention to which nights are sparse and which nights draw a full house of merchants.

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