Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ultra-Orthodox Jews turn New York camera store into big-time business

Within minutes, a battalion of bearded men dressed in dark suits and felt hats, some clutching prayer books and speaking Yiddish, step onto the sidewalk and disappear into a brick building.

But this is not a yeshiva or synagogue.

This is B&H Photo-Video, a New York institution that has become perhaps the most famous camera store in the world. On any given day, 8,000 to 9,000 people pass through the front door of the store on Ninth Avenue, a block from Madison Square Garden. B&H ships cameras and other imaging equipment to all corners of the globe.

A private company that has traditionally shied away from publicity, B&H has instead relied on smart marketing and its reputation to generate profits. It is a formula that has helped B&H establish itself as one of the biggest and busiest photo-driven retail operations in the country.

"They are the 800-pound gorilla in the photo specialty business," said Greg Scoblete, digital imaging and communications editor at Twice, a trade publication that covers the consumer electronics industry.

Affectionately known as "Beard and Hats" because of the dress and customs of the employees, B&H has become a singular New York experience, akin to ordering a pastrami on rye at Katz's Delicatessen.

It's a frenetic and loud scene that involves fast-moving lines of customers, all pushing and elbowing to get to the finish line, or in this case, a row of stern-looking cashiers with beards. Above them, conveyor belts move the merchandise from one counter to the next.

"I live in Minnesota and the sensibility is not always Midwestern," said Magnum photographer Alec Soth, who has been a B&H customer for a decade. "It's a little more abrupt. But they're cheap and they have a huge selection."

With plenty of professional photographers like Soth buying there, B&H's customer database is a who's who of the photography world. For many, this quirky store has become indispensable. If you can't find it elsewhere, B&H probably has it.

B&H is famous for stocking the rarest of items from antiquated darkroom supplies, film that is fast becoming a relic and the most advanced devices. Once when NASA needed a rare lens years ago, they turned to B&H.

"We stock every brand and for every brand we stock every accessory," says Gary Eisenberger, the store's designer.

But don't expect any miracles when you walk into B&H. Asked recently when the nano iPod would be in stock, a floor salesman laughed.

"When the Messiah comes, and then he's going to want one," he said.

Company executives declined to discuss financials or the amount of revenue B&H generates.

Ask how many cameras B&H sells every year and you get this answer:

"How many quarts of water are in the Hudson?" said Herschel Jacobowitz, the company's chief information officer and business director. "We sell lots of them."

Ask how business is going and the response you get is this: "Baruch Hashem" or "Blessed be God" _ meaning, roughly, "Thanks be to God, things are good." Store Manager Eli Daskal said the name B&H originated from the "Baruch Hashem" blessing.

One indication of B&H's success that cannot be concealed sits in the Brooklyn Naval Yard: a nearly 200,000-square-foot warehouse that feeds its online division, which represents about 70 percent of B&H's business.

Inside, a platoon of pickers glide up and down the aisles, pulling items off shelves to the tune of religious music. Thousands of orders are shipped everyday from the warehouse, providing a sense of how far B&H has come since it began in relative obscurity in Lower Manhattan in 1973.

To some, the venture probably seemed like an unusual blend: Hasidism, a form of mystical ultra-Orthodox Judaism, colliding with a niche business.

But the pairing made perfect sense, said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. B&H is an outgrowth of the Jewish mercantilism that flourished during the Diaspora, he said.

In Europe before World War II, Orthodox Jews and Hasidim in particular worked as peddlers. After the Holocaust, many came to the United States.

"It was a skill that they brought with them," Sarna said. "They knew about buying and selling. In the case of the Hasidim, many of them also came with these commercial skills and they looked around for a good product."

Many fell into the fur and diamond trade. Others gravitated toward photography, where they put their rigorous religious training to good use.

"The Hasidic Jews in high tech have a reputation for understanding their product," Sarna said. "To properly understand something, you have to understand something through and through. This is part of the cultural heritage of people who study the Talmud. You've got an interesting mix of discipline and innovative thinking."

Since moving to its current location in 1997, B&H has expanded rapidly, seizing Web opportunities to bolster its bottom-line. Already, B&H has outgrown its giant store on the West Side. By April, B&H executives said they hope to double the current location's retail space, bringing it to a total of about 70,000-square feet.

The company employs 800 to 900 people, many of whom are religious Jews. The payroll also includes women despite a widely held belief they don't work there.

Many of the employees are trucked in every morning and trucked out every evening on buses to communities all over the metro area. The store closes each Friday afternoon until Sunday in observation of the Sabbath, and on about a half-dozen Jewish holidays each year.

Everybody at the store operates under the same guidelines. If anyone wants to pray, they can do it on their own time.

"There's no special treatment," Jacobowitz says. "You can't run a business that way. You can't discriminate."

Richard Spiess, 34, a sales associate in the pro digital department, doesn't disagree with that assessment. "They treat us well _ never like outsiders," he said.

Spiess, a self-described camera geek, moved from Seattle to New York two and a half years ago to take a job at B&H. He said there are some advantages to being non-Jewish in such a heavily Jewish environment.

"We get a lot of nice holidays off."


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