It was a true story about a customer who had sent Bonnie an email asking about an old cookbook, wondering if there was any way Bonnie would know the one she’s talking about. The catch: the customer couldn’t remember the name of the book, or its author, or what it looked like, really, aside from the fact that the cover was red. After a few exchanges and a clue or two, the customer remembered that the author had “a Jewish-sounding name.” Immediately, Bonnie knew — the answer popped into her head, a truffle of dormant knowledge that almost two decades in her business will naturally unearth when the time calls.
“I told her,” Bonnie says, “’I know the book, I know the author, and I can get it for you for less than twenty-five dollars with shipping.’”
Bonnie doesn’t withhold certain pieces of information from the customer (like the title, for example) to heighten the suspense — that would be manipulative and strategic in a way that Bonnie, as a person, just isn’t. The secrecy is a necessity, a lesson in self-preservation, learned not just by being in the business for as long as she has, but from being in the business long enough to see the world with and without the explosion of internet.
“I've made the mistake of giving them the title, and then I'll never hear from them again,” she tells me with incredulousness. “Or, I’ll get an email from them after they bought a book online that I found for them, I’ll get an email that says: 'Isn't the Internet great?!’”
It’s a shame that you don’t often hear the phrase “old-fashioned” used as a compliment, because as I stand in Bonnie’s shop, I wonder why some things, like the way of book-buying, ever changed.
Bonnie’s shop first opened in 1997, in a West Village basement. It stayed in the Village for fifteen years, and it’s important to note, I think, that fifteen New York years is like seven hundred everywhere else years. But after a while, in one of those classic big city horror stories, her landlord refused to renew her lease, and she was kicked out in January 2015. If that was a horror story, what followed was one of those twinkling magical Christmas stories: siblings Margo and Garth Johnston reached out to Bonnie, offered her a 10-year lease in their East Village brownstone, a space about triple the size of the original. They’re her landlords now, but she prefers to refer to them as her “angels.”
Amidst the warm light, wood floors, tea towels, various dolls and animals, glass bottles, notecards, wooden chairs, vintage prints, and of course, shelves and shelves of books, I find myself in a little world (a little basement, more specifically, which only makes it better) that is much different than the world I just came from, right outside on eternally-bustling 2nd Avenue of Manhattan. The sanctity of the space reminds me of a less stoic and hallowed version of an old church. Seemingly every significant word that has ever been written on food and cooking are nestled within the stacks around me, and I can’t help but feel reverent.
You don’t have to whisper in Bonnie’s shop, though, and when I ask about her favorite part of it all, it’s the people, not the books, that come to mind.
“The way customers recommend things to each other,” she says. “Someone will be leaving and they’ll see a book someone has on the table and they’ll point and say ‘oh, I love that book.’ And they'll talk over coffee — they’ll say ‘hey do you wanna go get a cup of coffee?’ and they’ll get together over something that started in here.”
She laughs when she reveals, “I have a sign that I keep behind the counter, a sign that says, ‘you can't get that on Amazon!’”
And it’s true — Amazon works with algorithms to give you recommendations. Bonnie works with personality traits. Before she and I met, I listened to an interview from 2008 with The City Cook Podcast, and I gained some insight into her process.
“I’ll ask the person about the recipient of the gift. Where is the person from? What kind of work does she do? Where does she like to eat when she goes out? Does she tend to cook Italian, French, Spanish, Swedish? Is she a reader who would sit down and read a piece of food writing rather than a recipe? Would she want a book that is practical and up to date? Or would she prefer something from a hundred years ago? Sometimes even, I ask the person’s birthdate, because I may have something like a bound volume of Gourmet magazine from 1948 for someone’s 60th birthday in 2008. Or what their name is, because if someone happens to be named Mary or Francis or Sue, there may be a cookbook that has their name in the title.”
Immediately after listening, I type “cookbook” into the search bar of Amazon, replicating the same type of open-ended-ness with which I enter Bonnie’s shop. I don't know exactly what I’m looking for, I just know I want a cookbook. The top results are best sellers, a trendy list that includes a book with a picture of a faceless man’s abs, The Disney Princess Cookbook, and a book with the sub-headline “eat like you give a [expletive].”
I close the window, and am left feeling a little hollow. Doesn't Amazon want to know my birthday?
We talk about trends.
“The lists,” she grumbles, rolling her eyes. “[Publications] will email me asking me for lists, ’what are your 10 best or most favorite cookbooks?’ It’s personal! It's like asking me for the best brand of underpants — ‘Well I don't know, try some out!”
On cookbooks today, Bonnie remarks: “Everything sounds the same, they all look the same. I’ll have customers shopping for me in bookstores, wherever, and we’ll be on the phone and they’re reading me titles. And I’ll say, ‘who’s it by?’ and they say, ‘there’s no author’ and I’ll just tell them to keep going.”
“Well, it’s less about the person and more about the brand,” I find myself explaining to someone whose mind hasn’t been plagued with the idea of needing to develop yourself into so much more than just a human with a voice to survive.
“I’ll get invitations to workshops on branding and just roll my eyes. My name is on the front of the store, and it's my name! My name’s my name, BON-NIE SLOT-NICK. It can't get any catchier!” And truly, it’s the person behind the book, too, and their unique way of telling a story, which she credits as the best way to stand apart from the saturation.
“Is there anything that cookbooks have now that they didn’t back then?” I ask, a question to which I think I already know her answer.
She shakes her head solemnly. Then she laughs and shouts into my recorder: “Long string of silence!” But I know she’s serious. “No. Really nothing.”
The trend-conscious youth in me speaks up, “How about the really innovative ones, though? Molecular gastronomy, Eleven Madison Park, all that?”
“People aren't taking them to bed and reading those at night. People don’t cook like that at home. When I see something shaped into, like, into a perfect shape…I always say, there are no straight lines in nature.”
She follows with a passionate micro-tirade against foam. “I don’t like it at all. It’s like spit on a plate!”
“Even the people who make foam hate foam,” I agree.
And as far as her own cooking style?
“I'm very off the cuff. I’ll condition my taste buds for what I know I have at home, usually spinach, a piece of chicken.”
After almost twenty years, Bonnie Slotnick still has visitors that acknowledge the increasing novelty of her service, but disregard the actual use of it.
“Young people come in, they hardly look up from their phone, they barely say hi. They come in to talk about business or show off to their friends they they know about this place and then they leave. Or a bunch of young guys, a buncha tough guys you can tell work in restaurants, they walk in in a pack and they kinda look at me and are like, ‘so uh…what’s your favorite cookbook?’ The young chefs in New York — they don't even know who these people are,” referring to the most beloved cookbook icons: James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, to name a few. “Or at least, they weren’t around when they were on primetime.”
As someone who grew up in restaurants, with a chef father and a big, food-obsessed family, I find myself thinking about all that I’ve missed, about the icons whose primetimes predate me. I realize anything I have ever seen of Julia Child has been on YouTube, never on TV or in the context of when she revolutionized home cooking for everyone, forever. I lament that I’ve barely lived in that world, a world Bonnie understands so well. I realize it’s a time I can never truly return to. I can only be grateful that Bonnie Slotnick has worked so hard for so many years to preserve it.
So I am.
(Images: Laura Manzano)