Merle Hartstein dies; indefatigable volunteer for those in need

Merle Hartstein in 2011

By Gloria S. Ross, Special to the Jewish Light

About two years after opening a bookstore in Chesterfield, Merle Hartstein arrived one morning to find a swastika carved into the shop’s front door.  It was just before Rosh Hashanah. The same vandalism had occurred around the holiday the previous year, but this time the carvings were deeper. 

Mrs. Hartstein viewed the damage with equanimity and declared she would again repair her door and that was all. She would not be moving.

“It could happen anywhere,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1988. “But it is a violation. I feel so powerless.”

Mrs. Hartstein, who was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, died Tuesday (Nov. 26) at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield of an infection following chemotherapy. She was 77 and had most recently lived in University City.

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Funeral services will be Wednesday, Nov. 27 at 1:30 p.m. at Berger Memorial Chapel.

The word ‘powerless’ was rarely if ever associated with Mrs. Hartstein.

“She was a real force and a strong, strong woman,” said her youngest child, Larry Hartstein of New York. She operated under the philosophy that “there are no right decisions; you make the decision right.”

The bookseller

Had it been six doors closer, one of her boldest decisions, the bookstore on Ladue Road, would have been in her home on Green Trails Drive. She opened it in 1985. 

The Green Trails Book Shop, named for the Chesterfield subdivision in which it sat, was hidden away in a small shopping center. Susan Albert found it. She was a customer before becoming an employee.

“I had to take a test,” Albert recalled laughing. 

Albert, a librarian by training, said the test was necessary because customers depended on their knowledge. 

“People came in and didn’t know what they wanted to buy,” Albert said.  “They trusted (our) recommendations; that’s how Merle built the business.”

The store sold new and used books amidst a steady background of music. It stocked the classics, contemporary paperbacks and everything in between. It had a book group – before Oprah – that’s still going.  

Albert worked with Mrs. Hartstein for the last 13 years of the bookstore’s existence. So did Connie Picker.

It was the best job I’ll ever have,” said Picker, who now sells books for a large chain bookstore. 

Green Trails was a neighborhood store with loyal customers. So loyal, they were willing to wait for the latest blockbuster. It was not a “Jewish” bookstore, but it was closed on Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath. 

“Harry Potter came out on Saturday and our customers waited until Sunday,” Picker said. “That was a tribute to Merle. She lived her faith.”

Mrs. Hartstein closed the bookstore for good in 2005 in favor of the freedom to visit her children and grandchildren in Israel, including two grandchildren who are in the Israeli Army. 

Unsung hero

Merle Ruth Brooks was born in Philadelphia on March 30, 1936, the youngest of Shafa and David Brooks’ three children. She grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Pennsylvania State University. 

In 1959, she met Jack Hartstein, who was completing a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was teaching special education classes at the old Children’s Hospital School in Baltimore. Within three weeks, they were engaged; four months later, they were married. 

Her husband, an ophthalmologist, moved the family to his hometown of St. Louis. Here, she began teaching at Miriam School before embarking upon her second career: raising their three children and then a third career as an entrepreneur.

Throughout, Mrs. Hartstein was a constant volunteer, for which she eschewed recognition.  In 2011, she was reluctantly named an ‘Unsung Hero’ by the Jewish Light. 

For decades, she had quietly helped thousands. 

She coordinated two programs at the Vaad Hoeir for people in need: The Rabbi Sholom Rivkin Maos Chitim/Tzedakah Fund, which provides kosher food and items for Passover, and the Barbara Mendelson Tomchei Shabbos Fund, which assists with Shabbos and Yom Tov. 

“Merle was a person who dedicated herself to helping others,” said Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad Hoeir. “There was so much she did; we don’t even know it all.”

“Under Jewish law, we are supposed to be charitable, find ways to do chesed, but when you just give money, you don’t always feel it,” she told the Light. “Working with these two programs – this is actual doing.”

Mrs. Hartstein was a member of Young Israel Synagogue and an associate member of Agudas Israel of St. Louis.

In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by a daughter, Anne Pace, of Jerusalem, and a son, Dr. Morris Hartstein, of Raanana, Israel; a brother, Howard Brooks, and a sister, Arline Brown, both of New York; and seven grandchildren.

Her services will be today (Wednesday, Nov. 27), 1:30 p.m. at Berger Memorial Chapel, 9430 Olive Boulevard. Interment will be at Chevra Kadisha Cemetery. 

Memorial contributions preferred to Barbara Mendelson Tomchei Shabbos Fund, 4 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63146.