onnie Slotnick opened her eponymous cookbook store in 1997, a Greenwich Village basement space that was open "by appointment or chance" — mostly on weekends; Slotnick still had a day job. For fifteen years, Slotnick's shop was a beacon on West 10th Street, an oasis of personality in a neighborhood of rapidly changing character. Slotnick herself was beloved, too. A font of information, she was always ready to devote hours to even the most esoteric inquiry: a reader's search for a book last glimpsed on a great-aunt's shelf, or the definitive recipe for clam pot pie.
Then, last November, she lost her lease. Yet another casualty of downtown's boomtime real estate economy, yet another place too good to last in the new New York. As one bereft customer wrote on Jeremiah's Vanishing New York (a website dedicated to mourning the passage of just such businesses): "This place embodies what you want in an independent bookstore — character, knowledge, warmth of spirit, a good dose of eccentricity, a place you want to browse, chat, linger, lose all sense of time. There has to be a new home somewhere."
There had to be. And yet, it was hard not to assume the worst. Hadn't we all seen this happen a million times before? Slotnick wrote in an email to her followers, "I thank you for your friendship, your patronage, your loyalty, your interest, your love." And then, something that almost never seems to happen, did: a pair of siblings offered her a space in their East 2nd Street building — a bigger, more affordable space. In a time when any recipe can be found online and we are constantly warned of the imminent death of print, a quirky specialty cookbook shop not only survived but grew.
Cookbook collectors admit to their passion with a sense of sly reveal, like admitting a vice
Cookbook readers are a particular breed. Like cat-lovers, we secretly persist in believing our passion to be quirky and eccentric, against all evidence of their in fact overwhelming public popularity. Even though cookbooks sell briskly in even the most conventional big-box store, cookbook collectors admit to their passion with a sense of sly reveal, like admitting a vice.
"I have a cookbook habit," Nigella Lawson writes in How to be a Domestic Goddess, confessing to a propensity for tipsy late-night binges in the stacks at Kitchen Arts and Letters. When Ann Beattie was featured in the New York Times' "By the Book" column, this was the pull-quote: "I read more novels and stories than anything else except, maybe, cookbooks." Google the words "cookbook addiction" if you want to find a lot of AA-style parodies. I get it. We who love cookbooks feel deeply relieved not to be alone in what is, ultimately, the most solitary of pursuits - the engagement of your own memory and imagination and senses. If a single cookbook is great, an entire store of them is even better.
he new Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks sits on a tree-lined East Village Street, inside a 19th Century building crowned with masonry work. The interior is equally pleasant: a light-filled space, rows of multicolored spines, tables of vintage enamelware strainers, well-loved stoneware mixing bowls, chipped Noritake tea cups. On the shelves: yellowed settlement house cookbooks, 1950s home ec manuals, spiral-bound community recipe collections, beautiful volumes filled with vivid lithographs.
"Now the look of the book dictates the sale," the 75-year-old British cooking doyenne Prue Leith recently wrote in the Radio Times. "In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if that would sell today. But those books were much used: they lived in the kitchen and got splattered with custard and gravy. Today, if we cook, we Google it. New cookbooks lie on the coffee table and we drool over Tuscan landscapes and rustic bread ovens. Before ordering in a pizza."
The usual lament! And yet, this doleful news would come as a surprise to the many customers browsing the variegated shelves at Bonnie Slotnick — to say nothing of Notting Hill's Books For Cooks. Or Appetite for Books in Montreal. Or Toronto's The Good Egg. Or Barbara Jo's Books to Cooks, in Vancouver. Or Paris's Librairie Gourmand. New Zealand has Auckland's Cook the Books. In Australia? Check out The Cookery Book in Sydney, or Brisbane's Scrumptious Reads.
In New York, Kitchen Arts and Letters has set the standard for selection and scholarship since 1983, while downtown booksellers Bonnie Slotnick and Joanne Hendricks provide troves for the kitchen antiquarian. Boston's Stir and Chicago's Read it and Eat offer classes and demonstration kitchens; San Francisco's Omnivore Books offers the latest releases mixed with antiquarian treasures like Jeremiah Tower's collection. Meanwhile, quirky establishments like Kitchen Witch in New Orleans's French Quarter may close on the owners' whim — always call ahead.
As of this writing, there are fifteen dedicated cookbook stores in the United States, and four in Canada. It’s true that cookbooks of the TV-related coffee-table varietal may burn up the Amazon bestseller charts, but these stores without exception sell a range of books, many decidedly unglossy, lots without a single picture.
Of course, the very existence of the phenomenon — let alone its scale — might come as a surprise to some people. To someone who doesn't love cookbooks, an entire brick-and-mortar store dedicated to them might seem quixotic indeed — let alone something like Kansas's Barbecue Book Nook, an appointment-only store dedicated exclusively to books on barbecue and grilling. But to those who live to read cookbooks, there are never enough of these stores, the more specific the better.
hat makes cookbook love different from any other kind? Adam Gopnik theorizes that "A kind of primal scene of eating hovers over every cookbook, just as a primal scene of sex lurks behind every love story." Laurie Colwin adds, concisely, "You want comfort; you want security; you want food." And Barbara Pym describes "cookery and devotional books, the most comforting bedside reading."
(A note here: cookbook lovers are very intent on mentioning the fact that they read cookbooks in bed. Anthony Lane goes so far as to say, "Cookbooks, it should be stressed, do not belong in the kitchen at all. We keep them there for the sake of appearances; occasionally, we smear their pages together with vibrant green glazes or crimson compotes, in order to delude ourselves, and any passing browsers, that we are practicing cooks; but in all honesty, a cookbook is something you read in the living room, or in the bathroom, or in bed." I must admit that I find cookbooks much too exciting to read before sleep. The mind swirls with the processes described, the imagined results, the possible menu combinations, the recipes and dinners and lives that could be, and one finds oneself awake at three a.m. Awake, and hungry.)
Like any passion, it's hard to explain cookbooks without delving into tautology: We love them because we do. You don't need me to get into the importance of food — sociologically, historically, biologically. But why do cookbooks persist? I do have one theory: reading any recipe demands an act of imagination. If an author is describing a finished dish in toothsome detail, we seek to conjure its form in our mind. If a recipe is sketchy and imprecise or improbable, another sort of work is required: what will that taste like? How will it work? Will the texture be like this? For me, maybe for a lot of us who grew up reading hard copy, an online recipe (for all the convenience) both takes away some of this necessary learning work — all those step-by-step pictures — and removes the pleasure of solitude. Old cookbooks are a potent and immediate form of time travel, new ones are a glimpse of a possible future.
Like any passion, it's hard to explain cookbooks without delving into tautology: We love them because we do
At the same time, reading cookbooks is not so wholly demanding as a novel or story. It caters to short attention spans, and allows — indeed, demands — interface with the real world. There is no particular conflict; there is none of the guilty push-pull with which other reading is fraught nowadays. Cooking - eating - can sort of always be justified; besides, those who don't love cookbooks don't understand what an escape it is, so it's sort of a stealth pleasure.
Prue Leith is not totally wrong about contemporary cookbooks' reliance on photographs; people do love beautiful pictures of food — and why not? As aspirations go, a beautiful meal is both attainable and relatively wholesome. Maybe "status" cookbooks are easy to sneer at now, but every vintage cookbook was new once, too. A good cookbook can be scholarly, sexy, campy, beautiful, dry.
In a cookbook store, the delights are magnified exponentially. As thrilling as it is to find a dozen cookbooks on a topic that interests you, it is sort of nice, too, to see all the topics that don't - professional confectionary, for instance, or certain hyper-regional cuisines - because life is too short, and it's good to know someone else is on it. The sheer physicality of the object is its magic. When I asked Bonnie Slotnick why she believes cookbooks persist, she said, "My customers often tell me that they don't like to cook from recipes on a screen. They like to hold an actual book in their hands, write comments in the margins. They appreciate having their mother's or grandmother's notes in books they've inherited. Some people are overwhelmed by the number of recipes online and don't know how to choose among, say, 5,000 brownie recipes. Much easier to pick up the old Fannie Farmer and turn to page 444, or whichever page in your edition has chocolate stains on it."
oughly speaking — and I do mean roughly — there are two kinds of cookbook stores: the polished and the cozy. While the stock at both might be similar, doing trade in vintage as well as glossy new books, the newer stores tend to be more user-friendly: often there are classes and author visits. The proprietors are happy to order a book for you. London's welcoming Cooks For Books, for one, makes a point of trying recipes in the shop's attached kitchen — and then selling them in their cafe, what they describe as "putting theory into practice." At Seattle's Book Larder, the beautiful open kitchen looks almost like a performance space, and nearly every day brings a new event with a current author.
A store like this, with a deep stock list and a customer-first attitude, is just about as convenient as shopping online, and the physical pleasures - good smells, comfy chairs, open shelves, new discoveries - more than make up for any cost difference, for most of us. They play on food's sociability - a reason for bonding, for dating, for meetup - while nurturing the age-old love of the object. For the new cook, maybe someone attracted by a popular web site or a cooking TV show, such a store will feel welcoming; for someone to lives to eat (or read about it), it's like coming home.
The other sort of store might have a bit more of a treasure-hunt air. It's a store built around its books, not its clients. Perhaps its customer service results in mixed reviews from indignant Yelpers. You never know what you might find, although it's certain the owners will have heard of everything, and be able to give you an education, too. When that copy of Celebrated Actor Folks' Cookeries (a 1916 volume published by Mabel Rowland Inc.) that you inquired about turns up three years later, you might get a call.
There is a sort of time travel possible with an old cookbook that very few other books can provide: whether it's a domestic manual meant for use, or a 1960s astrology cookbook (a novelty even then), you get a sense of a culture, a time, of tastes. I can still remember finding a copy of 1919's A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband at a long-ago church sale and being immediately transported to the world of a World War I-era bride. And these books are of course, valuable to historians — or chefs, always eager for inspiration and ideas — as well as laymen. Indeed, some stores have serious culinary pedigrees: Kitchen Arts and Letters was a favorite of James Beard and Julia Child, and is a necessary pilgrimage spot for food-world celebrities like Ferran Adria. Biddleford, Maine's Rabelais is as beloved by chefs as it is casual readers. And Ben Kinmont Bookseller in Sebastopol, California, is a true scholarly archive, complete with appointments.
It would be easy to make this a diametric divide: old and new, serious and faddish, slick and musty. To imply that one form implies more integrity, the other is a sop to the glossy new wave food porn that attracts fickle culinary day-trippers. But the truth is, that's not how it feels. There are no bad guys in the world of food bookstores; they're all indie booksellers! And food-lovers to boot. The scene as a whole feels fiercely collegial, deeply knowledgeable, and pleasantly obsessive. Keeping a venerable business going is heroic. Launching a new business is heroic. Braving new media is heroic. Wanting to share something you love is heroic, too. And to the customer, both sorts of shop feel necessary, both are beloved. Almost all are the product of fierce and utterly impractical passion.
Almost all food bookstores are the product of fierce and utterly impractical passion
These passions are not always enough, of course. When Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks lost its lease, their loyal customers pulled together an urban fairytale ending, but other stories are less rosy. In recent years, several beloved institutions have closed: Salt and Pepper Books in Maryland, Charleston's Heirloom Book Company, and The Cookbook Store in Toronto. New Orleans' Kitchen Witch is currently in transition. The store opened in the French Quarter post-Katrina, hoping to help anchor New Orleans' recovery. Co-owner Philipe LaMancusa's personal library comprised the opening stock, and they now boast an unbeatable collection of Creole and Cajun cookbooks. But the French Quarter's recovery has gone so well, the store now faces untenable rent increases. Luckily, a new space has emerged in a strip mall, where the owners assure their fans, "You can bet your sweet mule that we'll funk it up pretty!" Whatever comes next, says LaMancusa, "Cookbooks are my family, my children and my lovers: I read them before bed and after, and while in, I keep scrapbooks of my favorite recipes, I make food and share with neighbors, I mix spice blends and give recipes as gifts. On more than one occasion I have slept with Julia Child and other great food writers."
And yet, relative to other specialty bookstores, cookbook shops seem relatively robust. Seattle's Book Larder opened in 2011, and Read It And Eat debuted this year in Chicago. Some of this, ironically, is surely the fault of the internet: nothing has done more to universalize an interest in cooking and the storytelling that surrounds it, to make the world of food feel accessible and fun. And perhaps in part because so many popular cooking blogs and websites - people like Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman, or the minds behind Food52 - promote and evangelize for cookbooks, sharing recipes but explaining the pleasures of a deeper immersion, the two media feel unusually collegial and symbiotic.
And then, of course, there are the people. Even the internet's overwhelming wealth of knowledge is no substitute for a lifetime of learning. In a perfect example of exactly why we need these experts, Bonnie Slotnick is helping me address my cookbook-insomnia problem. As she wrote me, "I'll help you find some soothing recipes from the 1940s; they'll put you right to sleep. It's the new books that will get you all hopped up and give you wild dreams!"
Sadie Stein is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Saveur, Lucky Peach, and many other publications. A contributing editor to The Paris Review, she is a regular columnist for the Paris Review Daily.
Editor: Meghan McCarron
Photos: Helen Rosner; header photo: Shutterstock
Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note Kitchen Witch has found a new space, and erroneously stated Omnivore Books, not Book Larder, had a demonstration kitchen.