Treasure hunting in the LES: Bonnie Slotnick’s Vintage Cookbook Store

After being located in the West Village for 15 years, Bonnie’s landlord refused to renew the lease. Afraid she couldn’t afford a store in Manhattan anymore, she decided to write a letter to Jeremiah Moss (Vanishing New York), who then published her story. Shortly after, Bonnie received a call from two East Village residents, siblings Garth & Margo Johnston, offering her a 10-year lease of a space on the ground floor of their building. The new store is three times the size of her old shop, with access to a beautiful garden in the back. To welcome Bonnie’s Vintage Cookbook Store to the neighborhood, FAB dropped by the new shop on East 2nd Street.

image

Hi Bonnie! How are you experiencing the LES?
I’ve been here since February, and the East Village has been really good. I had actually been avoiding this neighborhood for years. In the ‘70s (as a young woman) I spent some time here, and the grittiness scared me off then. I never came back much. Now it’s much better. I love all the delis in this neighborhood – it’s a sign of middle class life. I already found my favorite tuna sandwich. Like the West Village, there’s a little too much night life for me, but I can leave. When I walk around at night, I just look at all the bars that are rocking, and I think: ‘Great, I’m going home.’

How did you come up with idea of starting a vintage cookbook store?
Actually, I went to school to study fashion illustration – it wasn’t until later that I got into publishing. I started collecting vintage cookbooks in my twenties. I was so in love with old cookbooks, that I wanted to find a way to make a business out of it. There used to be a lot of bookstores on 4th Avenue. Since I was using all my free time to walk around looking for books, I started walking around with a list of books that people were looking for – that became a pretty serious business. I became a ‘book scout’. I really didn’t know it was my dream, until it happened.

image

Small business strength/weakness?
I think that if you’re going to have anything on the main street, it has to be one of a kind. Of course, chain businesses are a threat to small businesses – but people that go to Whiskers Holistic Pet care, probably won’t go to PetCo. They will stick with the specialist. I think it’s the kind of store people get really attached to, and they won’t run off for a lower price. It’s the complete opposite of Amazon, people really appreciate walking into an actual bookstore nowadays. You have to pay for the privilege of dealing with an expert. All I really need to do is pay my rent, I don’t really aim to make huge profit off the store. The nice thing is that I don’t have to sell what I don’t like.

image

Sean (Chef at Momofuku) visiting Bonnie’s shop

How would you describe your customer base?
It turns out that a lot of my customers from the West Village are actually living in the East Village, so they are delighted they don’t have to make the trip. There are a lot of neighborhood people that stop in. They are anywhere from chefs to home cooks, people who like to read cookbooks are a huge proportion of my customers – they might not even cook. I also get a good amount of graphic designers, historians, or people doing  research for a novel or for propping a movie. I don’t really have a standard customer, that makes it interesting.

What is the oldest book you have in stock?
I have some books from the 1850s right now. It’s kind of a dwindling part of my stock. I keep them aside because they are more expensive, and very fragile. I have a book, the ‘The American Woman’s Home’, it’s written by Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The book includes sewing techniques a woman must learn, how to care for the homeless, helpless and ‘vicious’, a woman’s social duties, and a chapter on poison and antidotes. I love looking at how language changes over time. Most of my books I get from individuals, that inherited them, and a lot of people are downsizing, clearing out their old stuff. People call me with collections or with a single book. I have to limit it though.

image

Handwritten recipes at Bonnie’s store

While Bonnie was showing me around, we found a little American schoolbook, filled with handwritten recipes, in Norwegian. One recipe (Devil’s Food Cake), however, was written with a different handwriting, and in English. The notebook belonged to a certain A.P. Zierau, which we decided to try and track down. Thanks to Google, we found that this Norwegian family actually immigrated to the USA in 1921….The family must have made some American friends and what better way to connect myriad of cultures and histories of the LES than through cooking and food!

Bonnie Slotnick Vintage Cookbook Store
28 East Second St.
New York, NY 10003
http://www.bonnieslotnickcookbooks.com/

Written by Marieke Scherjon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *