Joanne Hendricks’s shop is on the western edge of Soho, in a brick house that slumps under the weight of its 200 years, bulging gently as though it has a potbelly. Joanne lives and works here, presiding over an eccentric shop of antique cookbooks and cookware—one that seems like it would be equally at home in the Met as in this tiny front room.
To enter the shop, you practically have to throw your body against the splintering oak door. It would be easy to miss the small copper sign at waist-level that reads simply “Cookbooks.” Inside is a chaotic trove of books and utensils, some neatly categorized by country of origin, some stacked on end tables and piled on the floor. There’s a sagging brick fireplace in one corner, and the walls are swathed in green-patterned vintage 1940’s wallpaper. A print from an obscure Andy Warhol cookbook hangs over the desk. The painting shows a piglet lying happily on a platter; the recipe begins: “Contact Trader Vic’s and order a 4-pound suckling pig.”
On the shelves, first editions of How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher, 200-year-old French cookbooks, and gaudy-colored tomes from the ’70s all keep company with odd treasures like plastic plates of food from Japanese display windows and an Etruscan clay pot.
Joanne is a petite, serious woman with neatly cropped salt-and-pepper hair; she has a steady gaze behind her glasses and tends to wear sensible corduroys or khakis. She opens and closes the store by whim and often seems distressingly unconcerned with commerce. She recently sold a $3,000 book, but confides that, instead of paying bills, she bought a rare copy of La Cucina Futurista, a 1932 cookbook by the Futurist thinker Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (who advocated the abolishment of pasta).
The most expensive book Joanne currently has for sale is the $4,500 Book of Bread, a 1903 volume full of life-size silver-gelatin photographs that show in beautiful and surreal detail exactly what a good loaf of bread looks like.
Opening a bureau, Joanne takes out a small metal implement that looks like a miniature pizza peel and explains that it’s an early American utensil for taking food out of the fire. Sitting on top of a bookcase is an entire set of 19th-century eau de vie glasses, still in their original brown-paper wrappings, discovered in a wooden box packed with straw at an antiques shop. The sheer bounty makes even the normally phlegmatic Joanne a little giddy: “It’s quite wonderful,” she says in her earnest way, “to experience what people used to create and prepare meals—to feel the age of something.”
Imagine eccentric Joanne as a child, learning the Dewey Decimal System, reading her way through her local library. Then, about 13 years ago, Joanne opened the shop in her front room—exactly the function it had been designed for all those years ago.
The oldest book in Joanne’s shop, which has recently been sold, was a hand-lettered pamphlet of recipes from 1703—essentially a family cookbook, sewn together with needle and twine. The note of dedication showed that the book was a gift from a woman to her cousin. The pages had become fragile, but their advice on how to cook a young rabbit or bone a pigeon could be used in your kitchen today—well, maybe not the pigeon bit, unless you’re one of those urban foragers.
Of course, there aren’t many people who are interested in buying 19th-century corn huskers or rare Futurist cookbooks written in Italian for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. Many of these rare and antique items cycle their way from dealer to dealer—obsessives like Joanne. But recently, interest in antique cocktail books has been high, fueled by the old-fashioned cocktail resurgence. (In fact, Joanne says all her good cocktail books are sold out.) But fads fueled by old cookbooks don’t come around very often.
Nevertheless, chefs often come in, hunting for ideas in classic cookbooks. The Spotted Pig’s April Bloomfield is a regular and often stops in to browse through M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David. And university libraries, cultivating culinary collections, are also frequent buyers.
The surrounding blocks have changed dramatically since Joanne moved here in 1975. Back then, the area was mainly populated with warehouses, and there were few amenities. The house itself had a broken-down fireplace, a yard full of rubble, and hardwood floors hidden by layers of dirty linoleum. Her husband Jon (who, luckily for Joanne, has been an antiques collector since he was a teenager) salvaged a banister from an old house being demolished on Canal Street. For the kitchen, Joanne bought the original floorboards from Saint Luke’s when the church did a renovation. They replaced broken windows with period-appropriate leaded glass. (“One thousand dollars for a window is cheap,” she says. “Twenty dollars for a tube of lipstick is expensive.”)
While Joanne surrounds herself with antiques, mammoth steel-and-glass condos are going up all around her house. Recently, while I was browsing through an early edition of Simca’s Cuisine by Simone Beck, a light from one of the construction sites came crashing into Joanne’s garden. On an earlier visit, she had asked me: “Who are these people in their super-big, expensive condos? Where do they come from? What do they do?” Good questions, I thought.
One afternoon, Joanne was talking to me while standing over her antique ceramic stove, on which a chicken simmered in a pot for soup. I asked her why she thought old cookbooks held such an appeal for her. She poked the chicken thoughtfully with a wooden spoon. “I’ll tell you a story,” she said. “One time, up in Cape Breton, I went to a clam shack out by the water. And I saw a young girl sitting alone, maybe 16, with a huge pile of steamers in front of her. She was eating them one by one, scooping them from the shell and dipping them in yellow drawn butter with a look of concentration on her face. And I thought: Nabokov could have written a story for her. That’s what I’m drawn to—food that weaves itself into stories and imaginings. It’s probably why I like old cookbooks so much.”