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Remembering East End Jewish Bookshops

February 26, 2021
by the gentle author

When I published photographs of the Antiquarian Bookshops of Old London, Paul Shaviv from New York sent me this poignant personal memoir of two celebrated Jewish bookshops

Jacob Nirenstein outside Shapiro, Vallentine in Wentworth St (c.1900)

Of all the bookshops serving the Jewish population of the East End, by the nineteen-sixties only a handful remained. Of those, two in particular were remarkable to me – Cailingold in Old Montague St and Shapiro, Vallentine in Wentworth St.

‘M. L. Cailingold’ was owned by Moshe Leib Cailingold who came from a bookselling family in Warsaw and died in 1967. He arrived in England in 1920 to establish a branch of the family business and opened a tiny shop in Old Montague St, but what few people knew was that opposite the shop he had a narrow, ramshackle, five-storey warehouse which housed his stock. Moshe dealt in rare and scholarly books, maintaining an office at 37 Museum St, where he kept his most valuable items and from where he functioned, too, as Hebraica and Judaica adviser to the British Museum. As he got older, Moshe could no longer negotiate the stairs up to the upper floors of his East End warehouse and the stock lay undisturbed for years.

At the age of twenty-two, Moshe’s daughter, Esther, had gone to Jerusalem to teach English at the Evelina de Rothschild School, headed for years by the legendary Miss Annie Landau, the aunt of Oliver Sacks. Esther was killed fighting in defence of the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and Moshe’s other daughter, Miriam (‘Mimi’) married the distinguished Israeli diplomat and civil servant Yehudah Avner who at one time was Israeli ambassador to London.

So, in June 1967 when Moshe’s health deteriorated, it was his son, Asher, who came to Spitalfields from Israel to care for him. “I returned from the battle on the Golan Heights on June 18th 1967 and soon heard that my dad’s health had taken a turn for the worst,” Asher told me, “and by the end of the month I was in London with my wife and children.”

Moshe Leib Cailingold passed away in August 1967 and, soon after, Asher and a cousin arranged a sale. It was an international event. Before the building was open to the public, it was open for collectors and dealers who flew in from Israel, America and Europe. At the time, I was a young, impecunious university student, just beginning a lifetime’s collecting obsession with Judaica and I knew that by the time the building opened to the public, the best books would be gone – not that I imagined that I would be able to afford any of the rarities, but I wanted the experience of seeing them! So I made my way to the East End and offered to work at the sale, carrying books in return for access to the warehouse. Asher Cailingold agreed and I enjoyed a magical couple of days roaming the warehouse in Old Montague St. I was assigned to individual buyers as they went through the stock and they gave me piles of books to carry down to the bookseller’s son to assess and price.

On the ground floor of the warehouse was a lean-to outhouse which no-one had paid any attention to until the last day of the private sale, when a well-known collector from Manchester asked if anyone knew what was inside it. The contents were a mystery and I was dispatched to find a crowbar to prise open the padlocked door. When we opened the lean-to, it was stacked with books. The collector from Manchester reached inside and snatched one book at random. He opened it, turned to Asher and said, “I’ll buy the whole contents.” The book he held in his hand was a rare antiquarian Hebrew tome printed in Venice and it turned out that the outhouse contained the stock from Moshe’s father’s bookshop in Warsaw, untouched for decades. Although, I could afford to buy only a few ephemeral pamphlets and books, it was a great experience for me.

Osborn St was home to another well-known bookseller and general Judaica store, R. Golub, and across from there was Wentworth St containing the small shopfront of ‘Shapiro, Vallentine’.  Shapiro, Vallentine was a publisher and bookseller with roots that went back into the nineteenth century. Originally owned by the Nirenstein family, in 1940 their daughter, Miriam, married a young Russian émigré, Chimen Abramsky, and he took over the store. Chimen, who passed away in 2010 at the age of ninety-three, was an astonishing, if diminutive, personality. He was the son of Rabbi Yechezel Abramsky (1866-1976), one of the great Talmudical scholars and Jewish legal authorities of the twentieth century, and in the thirties the rabbi of the great ‘Machzike Hadass’ (“Upholders of the Faith”) synagogue on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier St – which, famously, had been built as a Huguenot Chapel, became a synagogue and is now a mosque.

Although Chimen greatly respected his father, he did not share his beliefs and was a dedicated Communist until after 1956. His life story and his twin bibliophilic obsessions of Marxism and Judaica have become the subject of a recent biography written by his grandson, Sasha Abramsky, entitled ‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books.’

Shapiro, Vallentine was a trove of scholarly, academic and rare Judaica and rare, left-wing and radical literature and ephemera. Chimen knew his subject and served for years as Sotheby’s consultant and expert on Judaica and Hebraica, and later as adviser to Jack Lunzer who created the Valmadonna Trust collection. Eventually, Chimen closed the shop in the late sixties when he was appointed to the faculty of University College, London, later becoming Professor of Jewish Studies. As a leading theoretician of the London Left, an expert on Marx and Marxism, and on Jewish history, Chimen had a brilliant, polymathic mind, and an encyclopedic knowledge of books, printing, and manuscripts. He and his wife Miriam had two children – Jack, a mathematician and their daughter, the distinguished cultural figure, Dame Jenny Abramsky, formerly of the BBC.

Let me conclude by acknowledging my own East End roots – my late father grew up between the wars, in poverty, in the tenements of Thrawl St in Spitalfields. When I was a child, he used to take me occasionally on a sentimental excursion “down the Lane” on Sunday mornings and show me where he had been brought up, and the Machzike Hadass synagogue where his family attended. We always stopped at Marks delicatessen or Barnett’s, for kosher delights or pickled cucumbers, and to shake hands with ‘Prince Monolulu’.  My father belonged to a vanished East End. He died young, at only forty-nine years old, in 1968 – as they say, “May his memory be for a blessing.”

Chimen Abramsky of Shapiro, Vallentine


Photos courtesy Abramsky Family Archive

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. February 26, 2021

    I just watched the film “The Booksellers” about the antiquarian book trade, and I really wished that I could have seen behind the padlocked door. The writer was indeed fortunate.

  2. February 26, 2021

    I don’t always have time to read when this pops into my inbox but when I do it always provides a wonderful insight – another layer in the onion skin that is our place in the universe – thank you! As ever jx

  3. February 26, 2021

    Many thanks for this fine entry ! I first came to Brick Lane in 1974 & thus never saw either of the two bookshops : but I well remember Golub’s on Osborn St., at the bottom of Brick Lane, and still have some poetry books bought there in the mid to late 1970’s. Afterwards there were two or three Bengali language bookshops from the ’70’s on, the last which shut perhaps four years ago : another history ! All those bookshops were vital to the breath of the East End (as today’s still are too)

  4. Joan permalink
    February 26, 2021

    I too enjoyed watching ‘The Booksellers’ – it’s available to stream in the UK. Prompted by this article I have now ordered Sasha Abramsky’s book. I see from the programme that I still have from the event, that Chimen Abramsky spoke at Raphael Samuel’s memorial celebration. That is an occasion that I remember best for the piano recital by Samuel’s mum Minna Keal who I see was a Nirenstein and so part of the Shapiro, Vallentine family – in fact Chimen Abramsky’s wife was Minna Keal’s sister and clearly, from the obituaries, he was a big influence on the young Samuels. I look forward to learning more about this when ‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books’ arrives.

    What a lost world this now seems. A big thank you to Paul Shaviv for this memoir.

  5. Adele Lester permalink
    February 26, 2021

    Still have the Bible required for school RE lessons, purchased at Shapiro, Valentine. At 11 didn’t appreciate such a fascinating book store but how I would love to be able to browse there now!

  6. paul loften permalink
    February 26, 2021

    Thank you for this interesting history . I did not know of these bookshops as they were a bit before my time. I recall i used to travel down to Collets in charring cross road on a Saturday in the 60’s to browse amongst the international newspapers and books on display. I learned that it was founded by Eva Collet Reckitt one of the heirs to Reckitt & Colman . My father left the YCL on the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact in 1939. So it was a puzzle to me how people could have remained loyal followers until 1956 and Hungary.

  7. February 26, 2021

    How wonderful! This photo is a gem, and “sets the table” for the essay. I kept reading along, and would periodically re-visit the photograph and scoop up more (perceived) details.
    Thank you so much for this richly descriptive insight. “A blessing” indeed.

    I’m happy to say that I still recall the old section of New York that had many book stalls, and outdoor kiosks full of bargains, ephemera, and paper oddities. At that time, I was just beginning a lifetime of collecting paper and collage fodder, and even on my non-existent budget, I always came away clutching my loot and grinning like a fool. The thrill of paper
    never gets old.

    Stay safe, all.

  8. Jens Mogensen permalink
    February 26, 2021

    Thank you so much for the absolutely wonderfull mail you send on Spittalfields Life.
    It is always so well written and interresting.
    We had only visited this part of London on a few occasions prior to 2016. We took one of the many Jack the Ripper tours, and found this part of London rather special. But in 2016 my daughter and her boyfriend who was living in west London bought a flat in New Goulston Street, and we helped them rebuilding and decorating the flat. We were actually a bit scared of the surroundings at the beginning, but soon began to find it a fascinating part of London. We live in Denmark, as did our daughter and her boyfriend. But in 2014 she moved to London and found a job at an international School. ( She had a teachers degree in Denmark ). Her boyfriend moved to London 10 years earlier to be a musician and has been quite successful in that business. We have always loved London and have visited it many times in the past. But never much this part of London. In April og 2017 our grandson Billy was born at the Royal London Hospital. And we more or less moved to London to help the care for the child. And what a truly amazing experience that was. Somehow, somewhere I found your website and subscribed to your newsletter. And have enjoyed it tremendously. Our daughter and son in law, have since this moved back to Denmark, to be closer to us. That is so good, bu we do really miss London and Spittalfields. And can not wait to visit again. As soon as the dreaded Corona loosens it’s grip of the world. So again….. thank you thank you thank you for this link to our wonderful memories of London. Kind regards

  9. Bernard McGinley permalink
    February 27, 2021

    What a fine article. I knew the area in 1976-81, but for the bookshops that was too late. Eating at Bloom’s restaurant at Aldgate East was memorable though not a substitute.

    (Rabbi Yechezel Abramsky was born in 1886 I’m told.)

    Big thanks to Paul Shaviv and Gentle Author.

  10. Helen Webberley permalink
    February 27, 2021

    My beloved and I spent two years in North East London and Herts in the early 1970s. And although there wasn’t enough money to keep a small puppy alive, we used our two salaries on travel around Europe (sleeping in the car) and books. And once a week we bought a kosher meal, in Golders Green, Whitechapel etc. etc!
    Thanks for the memories 🙂

  11. Audrey Kneller permalink
    February 28, 2021

    What a jewel of an article. I can’t recall whether it was Golub’s or Shapiro, Vallentine now known as Vallentine, Mitchell, publishers, where I bought my very first siddur (prayer book) in 1956 that I needed to use at the Jewish school I attended in North London from 1956-1960. Both bookshops I remember well. We moved away from Spitalfields in 1959, but the whole experience of living there bears a very special place in my heart. Thank you Gentle Author for this wonderful memoir by Paul Shaviv.

  12. Paul Shaviv permalink
    March 1, 2021

    Thanks for all of your kind comments, and thanks to the Gentle Author for reprinting this column.

    Bernard McGinley – yes, 1886, not 1866! Thanks for spotting this typo!

  13. Jeremy Frankel permalink
    March 2, 2021

    Sasha Abramsky is a good friend of mine. we both live in Sacramento, California, USA, but we were both born in London. I was also drawn to this because my father used to own a small printing and stationery shop in Commercial Road, Stepney, London—G.I. Frankel. His father had begun the business in 1920, and my father inherited and ran the business until 1984. However, the building had been in our family since 1902. Thanks for a wonderful, evocative article.

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