Oral History

Cookbooks for doers and dreamers

Since 2000, Bonnie Slotnick has been the local source for vintage cookbooks and other food-related ephemera. Her tiny West Village shop is a haven for curious amateurs, scholarly professionals, and nostalgia-minded stylists and art directors. Though she's had more requests for The Settlement Cookbook and mid-century Betty Crocker than she cares to count, Bonnie will help you find that Japanese fruitcake recipe your Southern grandma used to make, or assemble an array of taste-specific books for your favorite armchair chef.

How did you get started selling cookbooks? I have a bachelor's degree in fashion illustration. The year after I left Parsons, I got an apartment in the Village—don't hate me, it's rent-controlled. But that's one of the things that allows me to not make a living as a bookseller.

There were still a number of great used-book stores in New York then, and I was always poking around, buying books for 75 cents or a dollar. I realized cookbooks were what really appealed to me. It's not the recipes so much as the provenance—knowing where the book has been, in whose hands it's been. And why a book was in a library at a certain time in America's history. I like to climb in a book, close the door to my imaginary time machine, and visit 1897 or the 1920s.

Do you cook?I live alone, and my dog Floppy is on a restricted diet, so we don't entertain as much as we used to. When I do cook, I almost never use recipes—except for baking. But my customers are great cooks. That's how I know which books are good.

Why do people buy your books?Often people want a cookbook they grew up with. One customer's mother had been buried with her Antoinette Pope School cookbook, so I sold the daughter several copies. Some young people want funky '70s stuff—it's just a scream to them that people ever dressed like that or ate that kind of food. An old book with penciled notations in the margins is much more precious to a certain kind of customer. If I can put it into the hands of somebody who loves it just the way it is, I'm happy. And we get serious cooks who want a specific recipe, or who want to discover something new. Fortunately for me, not everyone wants to do what the most cutting-edge chefs are doing.

What about people who don't cook at all? You can get anything in the Village, but people get bored with ordering in every night. So I always try to have basic books that are also about contemporary foods.

What's your favorite cookbook?The Country Kitchen by Della T. Lutes, from 1936. She grew up in rural Michigan in the 1880s and later wrote very sophisticated books about bridge food and such—but inside always beats the heart of a farm girl who hopes they're not eating her favorite pig for Christmas dinner.


BONNIE SLOTNICK COOKBOOKS 163 West 10th Street, 212-989-8962

See Also

Partners & Crime
This West Village mystery bookstore has—or can get—almost every whodunit in print. It also has great readings and signings.
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Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Bargain Books
Super kids' books—classic and brand-new—at fabulously low prices.
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Hue-Man Bookstore
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Complete Traveller
Maps, guides (from vintage Baedekers to new Frommer's) and a very knowledgeable staff make this place a must-see.
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Housing Works Used Book Café
This snug café, nestled in the middle of some 50,000 new and used books, is a Soho destination. All profits go to HIV-AIDS charities.
126 Crosby Street, 212-334-3324

 
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