Sunday, January 27, 2008

For Sale: Vintage Cookbooks, Cookbooklets and Grandma's Kitchen Comfort

Bonnie Slotnick has a website, but she discourages her customers from using e-mail. She’d prefer to speak to them directly.

She rarely cooks in the compact kitchen of her circa-1892 New York apartment, yet each day, she is surrounded by nearly four thousand cookbooks.

What might appear to be curious contradictions in an era of web-based businesses and instant search results are quickly dispelled during a visit to Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks at 163 West Tenth Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. The experience is like a journey back in time.

It is a bitterly cold day in Manhattan, but a whimsical early-Valentine’s Day window display of red paper-doily hearts and cookbooks on food and love beckons visitors to enter the town house. Inside the narrow shop, tidy white shelves hold a plethora of cookbooks from floor to ceiling. Sections are neatly labeled according to categories – Regional Cooking, Children’s Cookbooks, Household Manuals, Holidays, Cocktail Guides, or James Beard. There is a smattering of antique kitchen gadgets and utensils and bric-a-brac throughout the shop.

Bonnie Slotnick is a slender, soft-spoken woman. Her words are underscored with fluid, graceful hand movements that convey a sense of gentle elegance. She describes her inventory as vintage cookbooks and ephemera, which is the word typically used for something short-lived and without lasting significance. Yet, she quickly clarifies that the term is really a misnomer in her mind when it comes to her collection.

She spent 16 years in cookbook publishing, and over time, honed her skills as a “book searcher,” someone adept at tracking down rare editions. She opened her New York store on West 10th Street just off of 7th Avenue South in 1997.

I have just finished a leisurely browse through the shop, and carry three treasures to the front desk – a 1928 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer, a 1969 facsimile edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and a book from the 1970s titled Recipes from America’s Restored Villages. I ask Bonnie if she recalls her first cookbook.

She removes a fragile pamphlet from a cubby hole at her desk. The red cover has faded over time. The title is Butternut Bread’s Interesting Collection of Good Ideas, a pamphlet from the “Here’s a Good Idea Radio Series.” There is no date on the pamphlet, but it is probably from the late 1950s or early 1960s. The name “Libby” is written in pencil at the top of the cover. It is her mother’s name, and Bonnie wrote it there as a child because it was her mother’s book. Inside is a checklist of household tips organized according to iconic homespun green illustrations. She remembers being captivated by the book, and particularly the illustrations, as a child. When she discovered it again in a drawer as she was preparing to sell her parent’s house, it immediately evoked “the most comforting, wonderful nostalgic things.”

I mention my favorite book from childhood, Betty Crocker’s New Boy’s and Girls Cookbook. “That’s the one with yellow stripes,” she notes immediately.

Bonnie personally tends to gravitate towards 19th century American and English cookbooks of the period 1850 to 1950 – “books without dust jackets.” She points out that as she began to collect, she wasn’t necessarily doing so for the recipes. “I love reading the recipes, but in the period that attracts me, the recipes aren’t all that attractive.” Indeed, she notes that most cookbooks of that period advocated the systematic overcooking of vegetables.

While she does enjoy baking, her attraction to cookbooks amounts to something more. “I’ve always been nostalgic, even when I was very little,” she notes. “They kind of take me away. It seems like a gentler time.” The aura of vintage cookbooks even extends to the language. “The word grand is one I miss. It was used a lot in early food writing.”

While she does stock some volumes by celebrity authors, she is not enamored of the current celebrity chef obsession. “The celebrity chef, I cut off at Julia Child.”

I ask her if she knows the answer to my father’s favorite question – “Why are so many of us are addicted to cookbooks?” She smiles, and talks about how people are drawn to cookbooks for different reasons. One might buy a modern cookbook for a specific recipe, while someone else will buy a vintage cookbook because of the memories they inspire.

What is it that draws her customers to her collection? “They like where the books take them. Maybe an older book takes them back to their grandmother’s kitchen.” In a large, often impersonal city like New York those kinds of associations can be important. “They [vintage cookbooks] represent some kind of comfort and security,” Bonnie responds.

“Cookbooks tell you about the one universal aspect of human beings. They eat.”
Bonnie recommends taking pictures of your cookbooks, especially if you have a large collection. She talks about customers who have lost significant collections in fires, and have then had difficulty reconstructing their collections from memory.

She shows me a lower shelf lined with boxes that are stuffed with food company promotional cookbooks. “My friend calls these cookbooklets,” she laughs. She opens a box that contains dozens, ranging from Chocolate to Cheese. She is quite taken by the evocative illustrations and photography. The small booklets seem to carry a Proust-like ability to conjure up sentimental memories for her.

She pulls out a first edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, priced at $250, and places it on the desk. The gilded lettering on the spine is faded. I feel a sense of awe. I’m almost afraid to touch it. “Go ahead,” she encourages. “That book has been taped together so many times.”

As we conclude our conversation, two women are preparing to leave the shop. They have not made a single purchase, but they are clearly delighted. “It’s just so much fun in here,” one woman enthuses.

Upon hearing the comment, Bonnie gives me a contented smile. That is exactly the reason she collects cookbooks.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


La Cuisine d'Helene said...

I wish I could visit that place. I'm always on the search for old cookbooks. I have a few right now that I would not trade for anything. To me old cookbooks are so precious.

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

I have many old cookbooks myself, but only as far back as the 70's when I started my own collection.There are so many classic recipes that will never be forgotten and are revamped every day!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

One of the two most dangerous stores in New York (Kitchen Arts & Letters is the other)! How did you manage to escape with only three books? Now, if you are ever up in the Providence area, I will take you to my own secret used cookbook store, one which has no web site at all -- Eagle Trading Company in Assonet, Mass., a very out-of-the-way little village. But don't tell anyone.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Cookbooks are comfort to me. I read them like novels. I always have one on my bed stand. They lull me to sleep in a peaceful way as I imagine the dishes. I put them together in my minds eye as I read the ingredients. What will it look like and taste like? I would love this little cookbook shop :)

~~louise~~ said...

Bonnie's cookbook store sounds like my kind of place...
I have bought many cookbooks @ Kitchen Arts & Letters. Unfortunately, I haven't been to the city for too long. I don't even know if Mr. Waxman is still there...
I will just have to make it my business to visit both stores real soon...

Cakespy said...

What a beautiful post! I miss this place since I moved to Seattle, but happily I'm headed to NYC tomorrow for the next 10 days so am looking forward to visiting!

Veron said...

So T.W., how many cookbooks do you have? As for me , I stopped counting at 50. I think I'm addicted to cookbooks because I always think that there is something new to learn.

Anonymous said...

i *love* this store. it's dangerous for me to enter, along with kitchen arts & letters (and the strand, for non-food books).

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Helene - I agree that old cookbooks capture distinct moments in time.

Bellini - I really like the look of the cookbooks from the 70s, which was when I really began cooking in earnest.

Lydia - Eagle Trading Company sounds like a wonderful place. I will have to visit!

Maryann - I often curl up with a cookbook before bed - I like books on food history as well.

Louise - I will have to check out Kitchen Arts and Letters.

Cakespy - Let me know what you buy!

Veron - I have never done an actual inventory, but I can tell you the only room in my house where you will not find cookbooks is in the bathroom!

Thursdaynight - Thanks for visiting! I was in the Strand at Christmas, and could have spent a month there!

Kathy said...

Thank you for your reminder that I need to visit this store next time I'm visiting NY. I'm not quite sure how I've forgotten it on my previous visits. And for some reason I thought it had been open longer. I'm glad to find out I hadn't been overlooking it for as long as I'd thought.

Lidian said...

I am going to have to get to this store next time I am in NYC (this summer) visiting family.

I grew up in NYC, lots of family out on the Island, and have been collecting old cookbooks since the late seventies (along with my mother, whose collection I inherited).

Love your site and look forward to reading your archives. Am going to go link you right now!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Lidian - thanks so much for visiting. I've taken a look at your site, and you would REALLY enjoy Bonnie's shop!

The Apron Queen said...

Hello fellow vintage cookbook collector. I was searching Blog Land for kindred spirits & found you. My blog is a hodge podge of many things, but I've blogged a lot recently about vintage cookbooks & modernizing the recipes. Stop by sometime.

For your daily dose of vintage goodness & a bit of silliness, stop by Confessions of an Apron Queen, the home of Vintage Thingies Thursdays.