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The Whole Schmear

Bagel king Noah Alper serves memories and advice in a new book.



Two decades before he founded the bagel company that he would eventually sell for $100 million, Noah Alper was locked up in a mental hospital. Shocked to find their University of Wisconsin-student son in a mania exacerbated by drugs, lack of sleep, and the chaos of the Vietnam years, his parents had committed him.

"Madison was one of the epicenters of the antiwar movement," Alper says. To counter that movement, "there were the equivalent of tanks riding up and down the streets. There were helicopters; there were National Guardsmen with bayonets. It was stressful," as was his uncertain future: "Was I going to be drafted? Was I going to be a revolutionary? Or was I going to sell tuna fish with my father?"

He now considers his nine months at McLean Psychiatric Hospital "a healthy postgraduate experience ... that helped me calm down and prepared me to face life in a healthy way."

Little did he know upon his release in 1969 that his life would entail transformative trips to Israel — raised in a secular home, he became a devout Jew — and business ventures that, to varying degrees, brought profit and happiness and a sense of higher purpose.

While happiness and what he calls "the higher thing" are a learning curve, his eye for profit dates way back. During boyhood winters in Massachusetts, Alper always eagerly awaited weather reports.

"I would pray for snow days. Not just for the typical reasons of wanting to go sledding or make snowmen," he remembers in Business Mensch: Timeless Wisdom for Today's Entrepreneur, which he will discuss at the Oakland Main Library (125 14th St., Oakland) on Thursday, December 10, and which combines memories with practical and philosophical advice. "After a big snowfall, I would wait by the radio, listening intently for the announcement: 'There's no school today in Acton, Andover, Belmont.'" As soon as he heard the name of his hometown, "the first thing I did was get the snow shovel and drop by the neighbors' houses, offering to shovel driveways and walks. The bigger the storm, the more money I could make."

Recounting the story of what started as one small kosher bagel shop but became a national chain, the book begins on that day in 1996 when Noah's was sold:

"Of course, the hundred million would be shared with several partners, investors, our corporate partner Starbucks, and many employees with stock options." Nonetheless, thenceforth, "I wouldn't have to worry too much about money."

Alper attributes much of Noah's success to its ethics and social consciousness.

"Yeah, we had a great bagel," Alper says. "But beyond that there was a loyalty among our customers engendered by their knowledge" that Noah's employees regularly staffed soup kitchens, cleaned vacant lots, repainted schools, and donated tons of unsold merchandise to food banks.

"I have this thing about throwing out food. I just can't do it," he says resolutely. "So we never did." 6 p.m., free.

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