Food

The Black and White Cookie at the End of the World

Saying goodbye to Glaser’s Bake Shop

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Last weekend, after 116 years of serving Yorkville’s sweet-toothed populace, Glaser’s Bake Shop permanently closed its doors. Beloved in particular for its lavishly frosted black and whites — perhaps the most iconic example of New York City’s most iconic cookie — the bakery was most recently owned and operated by brothers Herb and John Glaser, the third generation to run the family business. And on Sunday, July 1, it served its final cookie.

I’d never been before, despite my twin interests in mom-and-pops (or, as the case may be, sibling-and-siblings) and all things sugar. I woke up early on Saturday morning, Glaser’s second-to-last day in existence, and took the train to the Upper East Side. I expected there might be a line, and if so, I was prepared to wait up to, I don’t know, half an hour? I had no idea what was in store for me. The bakery opened at 7 a.m.; I arrived around 8:15. By then, the line stretched out the door, around the corner, and halfway down 87th Street toward York Avenue. Well, fuck. It was the kind of line that you stop and ask about, which plenty of passersby did — the kind of line that, in my experience, is usually associated with a sneaker release, or admission to a show headlined by a band I am too boring, or old, or both, to have heard of.

At that point, I didn’t have any intention of staying, but I did want to see for myself just how far back the line went. Maybe, I thought, I’d stay for a few minutes. Then someone from the bakery brought out a tray of blondies with chocolate chips as a thank-you to everyone in line, and after the first bite I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Even so, conditions were less than ideal. I’d forgotten to charge my phone the night before, and it was down to 25 percent battery. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I’d already drunk half the water in the bottle I carry around with me.

My plan to kill time — to scowl, silently, into the middle distance — quickly backfired, when it became apparent that the (many) people standing beside me were both very friendly and very interesting. There was a kind of camaraderie to our randomness that made me think of a jury assembly room, with one important exception: Rather than having a citizenship and bad luck in common, almost everyone I spoke to shared a deep and abiding love for Glaser’s Bake Shop. An artist with a faint Texas lilt and a maroon hat covered in flowers explained that she and her family were longtime customers, “four birthday cakes a year.” Her husband, an editor for a visual merchandising publication, is writing a book about mannequins. He told me a story about Salvador Dalí designing a characteristically bizarre window display for a Manhattan department store: When the staff censored his installation, the artist stormed inside and — trying to reclaim the bathtub that served as its centerpiece — shattered the plate glass. A Ping-Pong instructor who lives in the Theater District wheeled his bike along with the line, occasionally stepping aside to stretch his calves by hanging his heels over the curb. He reminisced about a long-ago shuttered bakery in Istanbul; the recipes for the chocolates he’d loved were lost forever.

A hockey fan in a Rangers shirt made a spontaneous sales pitch for his season tickets — he’d just had a baby — to anyone wearing any kind of sports merchandise, including a Yankees cap. The Rangers fan started coming to Glaser’s when he dated a woman who lived a few blocks away. They broke up, but his romance with the bakery was only just beginning. As early morning became morning became late morning, a woman who grew up twenty minutes away from me in New Jersey pushed back brunch with her friends, again, and again. (She took the Rangers ticket holder’s number. She’s thinking about taking her nephew to a game around the holidays.) I sheepishly rescheduled a ten o’clock appointment of my own. It was abundantly clear that we weren’t getting inside anytime soon. And when we did, what, if anything, would be waiting for us?

As the early birds who’d already made their purchases passed by with their arms full of stacked white pastry boxes, those of us in line interrogated them about what remained in the display cases: “Excuse me, did you see any pies? Are there donuts? What about the cookies?” The same bakery employee who’d distributed the blondies warned us that the dwindling supply of black and white cookies would be depleted before we could get to them. (An unsubstantiated but quick to disseminate rumor held that they’d run out of white, but not black, icing.) This was a devastating blow to our collective morale.

After two hours of waiting, in which I’d advanced about 200 feet, I asked my new friends to hold my place in line and took a short walk. I thought seriously about bailing, then changed my mind. Call it nostalgia or, maybe, the sunk cost fallacy, but if there was even a black and white crumb left when I crossed the threshold, I wanted to have it. I put my phone on airplane mode. I bought a copy of the New York Times at the smoke shop on the corner and a bottle of water from the 7-Eleven across the street (they did not, I am sorry to report, let me use their bathroom). I was all in.

By afternoon, it was hot, cracking 90 degrees. The line thinned and contorted to maximize the relief provided by awnings and shady trees, and occasionally parted like the Red Sea to let through residents of the buildings on the north side of 86th — some dressed for the beach, others walking their dogs — apparently unfazed by the bakery crowds after weeks of this pre-closing fervor. When the sun grew stronger, I shared the travel-size sunscreen I keep in my purse. The Ping-Pong instructor generously held his umbrella so it would shield me, too, and told me about his passion for studying the Anatolian monarchs of history. He also likes Mario Tennis. Farther ahead of us, a doctor still in her scrubs, a hospital lanyard around her neck, looked like she might take a nap on a nearby stoop. Behind us, a little boy bounced on his father’s shoulders.

Even though we’d still have another forty-five minutes to wait, the atmosphere was giddy once we turned the corner onto First Avenue, in front of a hardware store advertising a discount for Glaser’s customers, and in sight of both the bakery’s retro mint-green facade and the massage parlor next door. Herb Glaser’s brownie recipe was posted in the window; hopeful customers craned forward to snap photos on their phones. “This is a Seinfeld episode,” the editor said, and he was not wrong. The Ping-Pong instructor pledged to return the next morning, early enough to get in line before the bakery opened, if there were indeed no more black and whites. At least two radio reporters circulated through the crowd. “Why?” 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria asked a man who said he’d driven in from Jersey that morning. “Why not?” he replied.

Four hours after I got on line, I walked inside Glaser’s Bake Shop, where the atmosphere of air-conditioned reverence wasn’t quite so reverent as to prevent customers from being scolded for holding the door open to the heat. I’d say the bakery felt frozen in time, which in many ways it did — the name John Glaser, its German immigrant founder, was beautifully inlaid in the white-and-blue-tile floor — but that would be discounting the delightful fact that one of the women masterfully wrapping and tying pastry boxes with striped string, suspended from a spool above her, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Jareth the Goblin King from LabyrinthAnother staff member’s face lit up as soon as she saw the artist in the flower hat. She came around the counter to embrace her. Miraculously, there were still plenty of black and whites available, now being sold in preassembled boxes of four — one box being both the minimum and the maximum purchase.

The artist warmly grasped my hand on her way out with her own well-earned carb haul. The Ping-Pong instructor and I hugged goodbye. I left carrying three boxes (four black and whites, two lemon meringue tarts, two cheddar scones, and two brownies) and gave as much information as I could on the inventory inside to the people still in line.

The food was delicious; that goes without saying. But that’s not really why I waited for so long, I realized later, lying on my couch, too exhausted to wipe some of the last chocolate frosting Glaser’s would ever produce from my face. I felt like I’d been to the happiest, most celebratory kind of funeral: Patronizing an institution like Glaser’s is an increasingly rare privilege, and I’m lucky that I had the chance to pay my respects.

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