I like food, and I like books, but I’m not that into books about food. So when a friend of mine suggested we visit a great new store that sold old cookbooks, I was reluctant. Eventually, though, I got curious about the woman I saw sitting behind a busy desk in the window of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, and went in.
The women in the window is Bonnie Slotnick. She’s been running her small emporium of used cookbooks at this location since 2000.
On my first visit, I entered the store reluctantly. But I left even more reluctantly, and have been back several times since, because it’s such a nice place to hang around. There are some chairs you can sit in. The shelves are filled with books, as with any bookstore, but these aren’t so much to read as to be examined, like artifacts. The store is as much about women as it is about food, and several generational variants on femininity and homemaking are present.
For anyone interested in cooking the appeal is obvious. But the store is a kind of time travel machine. The homemaker’s consciousness, as refracted through the fussy, commercial prism of food preparation, is represented on every shelf. The store is a place where all the weird anxieties, obsessions, fads and fashions of a given decade can be found manifesting themselves.
Bonnie Slotnick with some of her books
Photo by Josh Gilbert
Bonnie Slotnick single-handedly compiled the collection of books she stocks.
The store is a slender, book-filled room with a big window looking out onto 10th Street at one end. The Village Jazz Shop used to be just across the hall (“When the Village Jazz Shop is open, it’s open” read the sign on the door), but after 9/11 the owner moved out. Down the block from Bonnie Slotnick is the estimable Three Lives Bookshop , which is still very much there. Across the street is the Gourmet Garage, which sells boxes of clementines for 8 dollars, and half the box is no good. (But they’ll replace it with another box, if you ask.)
“I just got a call from somebody who was looking for two different recipes from the Pillsbury Bake-Off that were collected in the same book,” she said recently, sitting behind her cluttered desk.
I asked what a Pillsbury Bake-Off was.
“The Pillsbury Bake-Off is a baking contest that’s been going on since 1949, and every year the winning recipes are published in a booklet. It’s kind of fading now, but it used to be a real big deal because it had a $100,000 worth of prizes presented by Art Linkletter.
Do you know who Art Linkletter was?”
I did not.
“He was the host of ‘Art Linkletter’s House Party,’ a favorite TV show among housewives in the 50’s. He also started the TV show ‘Kids Say The Darndest Things,’ later revived by Bill Cosby.
“The woman who asked for the recipes is a regular custumer. I had just baked a batch of one of those cookies for my Christmas cookie plate. This customer
said it was from the seventies. So then it became a question of looking through Pillsbury books from the seventies. So I started going through the box of booklets, and got lost in them because the pictures are so wonderful. These are real home cooks, from places like Bismarck, North Dakota, St. Joseph, Missouri, and here’s Mrs. Beth Klabbatz, from Akron Ohio! They’re just regular homemakers. They all have fussy, curled hairdos, and most of them wear these pointy harlequin glasses. Sometimes they’re wearing hats, usually with little veils. The recipes have names like ‘Lemon Wow,’ and ‘Almond Petals,’ and ‘Honey Crest Whirlygigs,’ and ‘Bon Bon Donut Drops,’ which is dear to my heart because it’s my nickname. Bon Bon. Not Donut Drop,” she added. “And I only get called that by certain people.”
I asked if she has other nicknames.
“I was called ‘Brownie Bonnie’ for a while, when I baked brownies for a soup kitchen at a temple on East 12th Street, the Village Temple. I was so gung-ho about that gig! I baked about 10 dozen brownies for Saturday lunch every week, and I varied them each time with a different ‘mix-in,’ like m&ms, Reese’s Pieces, chunks of Snickers bars. The people who worked there were a strange bunch. Then the rabbi was arrested for interfering with a minor girl. I never found out exactly what he did but it was mentioned in the paper.”
She’s not baking at the Village Temple anymore.
On shelves in front of Bonnie’s desk are rows of shoebox-size boxes.
“Those are advertising booklets from food companies–flour mills, baking powder and yeast companies, things that date back to the turn of the century, booklets from chocolate and nut companies, recipe booklets from Borden, things like that. They usually have really beautiful artwork.”
I was once hanging around the store when a woman came in and said that she was looking for a gift. “It’s for the couple that lives next door to me,” said the woman. “Two guys, and they’ve got their whole apartment decorated with 1950’s furniture and artwork and tableware. Walking in there is like walking into ‘Peggy Sue Got Married!’ And I want something that works well in that environment.”
She got out from behind her desk to help look for the cookbook that would go with that apartment. Bonnie Slotnick stocks about 3,000 used cookbooks in her store, including 8 boxes of those little booklets from the flour companies and the yeast companies and the nut companies, which contain about 500 pamphlets each.
I stood near the crowded desk and notices a newspaper clipped tapped to the wall, an old headline that read: “Tenacious Slotnick Faces Biggest Test!”
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
163 West 10th Street, just East of Seventh Avenue