November 16, 2018

In West Hollywood, Serving Up a Little Bit of Russia

For more than 10 years, Alexander Urevich and his wife, Victoria, have run Kovcheg Russian Books, near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street, selling books, magazines and newspapers to Russian-speaking immigrants.

Kovcheg, which means “ark” in Russian, carries more than 50,000 books and sells a wide range of decorative items, including Russian nesting dolls, wooden platters and toys. For years, the store has been a go-to place for film studios looking for unique posters and medals from the Soviet era.

“We know our customers by name,” said Alexander, 63. “Not just our customers but their families, children and grandchildren.”

Over the years, the store has become a popular hangout for senior citizens, who drop by to read books and talk politics. American-born children of Russian-speaking immigrants bring their offspring to practice Russian with Alexander, whom they call Uncle Sasha, using the Russian diminutive for his name.

The store has remained open despite changes in the neighborhood. West Hollywood’s Russian-speaking population shrank about 30 percent to 3,872 people from 2000 to 2010, a city study found. Although the shop is located outside West Hollywood proper, most of its customers live there, Alexander said.

The Ureviches, both Jewish natives of Russia, made aliyah, living in Petah Tikva for two years before moving to California with their three children in 2002.

The couple learned about the bookstore, which has operated at its current location for more than 35 years, from an advertisement in a Russian-language newspaper. They sold an apartment in their native Ekaterinburg, Russia, and got a $15,000 loan from Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles to buy the business.

“I didn’t care what I would do — sell sausages, furniture or books,” said Victoria, 60. “I just wanted to start our own business.”

The store became an instant success, with customers of all ages visiting from as far away as the San Fernando Valley and Marina del Rey. Some would linger for hours, reading books and chatting with the owners.

“People would come and sit here for hours, talking about their kids and grandkids,” said Alexander, who eventually eliminated seating to stop customers from staying too long. “We have no chairs now, and people still come and sit here for hours.”

“We have no chairs now, and people still come and sit here for hours.” – Alexander Urevich

But despite a steady influx of customers, sales have declined in the last four years.  Since 2007, when the couple took over the store, average book prices have soared from $5 or $7 to $10 or $15 — prices many find prohibitive.

“Our rent is high and business is slow and books are hard to sell,” said Victoria, who partly blamed the popularity of e-books. “It’s getting tough because nobody wants to buy books anymore.”

Sandwiched between a beauty salon and a caviar shop, the store greets customers with a wooden box of $1 books. Inside the store, a Soviet flag hangs on the wall next to a wooden cuckoo clock and icons of St. Maria. A glass case displays wooden jewelry, wooden kitchenware and paintings. On the shelves, Sholem Aleichem novels sit next to books about UFOs.

On a recent afternoon, Larisa Gamburg stopped by the store with her three children. Her daughter brought a handmade greeting card to Victoria and Uncle Sasha.

“Victoria and Uncle are very friendly and are always ready to help find a good book,” the 11-year-old said.

Her mother said the family visits the store at least once a month and buys books that she read growing up in her native Ukraine, including “One Thousand and One Nights” and “The Children of Captain Grant” by Jules Verne.

Gamburg said she and her children enjoy spending time with Victoria and Alexander, who help her children practice Russian.

“It’s one of a few places in the area where we can find Russian books,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without them.”