In his memoir, Mort Zachter remembers his grandparents’ East Village bakery as a chaotic little shop, cluttered with breads and pastries. The kind of place where a health inspector might find a box of kitty litter, but could always be bribed with an excellent seven-layer cake to look the other way.
Zachter’s grandparents Max and Lena Wolkirmerski left Belarus for America in 1913, and lost the “irmerski” on Ellis Island. Over the phone, Zachter tells me how they started out with a pushcart on Orchard Street, peddling cakes of fresh yeast and assorted baked goods from a distributor in Brooklyn.
Soon the Wolks had saved enough to open their first brick-and-mortar shop on the corner of Allen and Stanton. When the city took to widening Allen Street into a boulevard in 1926 (to allow for the passage cars and the construction of new housing) the couple moved up to 350 Ninth Street.
The bakery has stood there for the last 87 years.
Max and Lena’s three children ran the place after them. In the 1960’s the hand-painted sign outside promised “home-style bread rolls cakes and pies” and the wooden shelves made good with pumpernickel and rye, crullers, Linzer tarts, strudel, jelly doughnuts, chocolate lace cookies, dinner rings, and a rich chocolate babka, all sourced from a variety of commercial bakeries, depending on what each did best.
Prices weren’t marked, but regulars knew they could find day-old rye at a discount or shell out for fresh marble cake with wide, dark veins of chocolate. Ninth Street Bakery was open seven days a week for many years until Joe Wolk died, and Harry Wolk, who suffered from dementia, could no longer work.
A woman in a white knitted cap and headphones walks into the bakery, her long nails glittering purple. Before she asks for it, Oleg Kucherenko hands her a chocolate-stuffed babka and a small bag of cookies. “I like to provide real service,” he says proudly.
Kucherenko came to New York from Ukraine when he was 27, and spent his first three days standing around in Borough Park with other immigrants, waiting for a truck to swing by and offer him a job. The first one he got was at a commercial Jewish bakery in Brooklyn.
“None of the other guys wanted to go to a bakery,” he says with a grin, “but how could I say no to work?” He’d studied urban development in a university in Moscow and hoped for a cushy office job, but that was before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
So Kucherenko lugged sacks of flour in Brooklyn, measured and mixed doughs, timed proofs, packed bread, and collected $4 an hour. He didn’t mean to, but he became a baker, and soon his boss asked if he might be interested in helping out a friend in the East Village. It was the 90’s and a new owner had just bought the Ninth Street Bakery from the Wolk family, cleaned it up, added glass counters, rubber flooring, and a modern register. They needed someone to run the place.
Kucherenko went and helped out — for nine years — then bought it himself in 2003 with his wife Tetyana. “I got into this bakery, I became part of it, but it is not mine,” he says, gesturing to the old photographs on the wall of the Wolk family and his own, posing in front of the shop.
Kucherenko’s new lease raises his rent by 38%. He’s not bitter about it, but can’t afford to sign either. Until the landlord finds a new tenant, he’s sticking around, but soon the Ninth Street Bakery will go the way of many small, immigrant-owned businesses in the East Village and close. Before the summer, says Kucherenko.
“No!” a customer shouts over the noise of miniature TV. “No, Oleg! Why you not turn the place to something fun? Why you not make it nice for the young people?” She is pointing to the Bean, across the street, full of freelancers spread out with their laptops and cappuccinos.
“You think my wife is waking up, dreaming of cooking soup? We are too old now to fight for this,” says Kucherenko.
That customer isn’t listening. She’s still scheming comebacks for the Ninth Street Bakery as she leaves, and promises to return with more ideas, better ideas, tomorrow.
“Great,” Kucherenko deadpans, “I look forward.”