By Kimberly Lightbody
Pinpointing exactly what makes Bonnie Slotnick such a fascinating person is difficult. Her store, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, is a miracle: a tiny shop of used cookbooks that has somehow survived the gentrification of the West Village. Her personality is warm and therapeutic, and encourages customers to spend hours sharing their life stories with her. Her own life story is itself captivating, a history of the West Village, modernization and change in microcosm.Slotnick evokes memories of a time when everything was peaceful and comforting and homey. Stepping into her store, a narrow, dusty space stacked with old books and knick-knacks, is like stepping into a different world.
Part of Slotnick’s charisma is her memory. She has an astonishing ability to recall quotes from 50 years ago, to describe scenes from her childhood in vivid detail. She still remembers the name of the librarian from her childhood library.
“It was a wonderful library that I still dream about, one of those old Carnegie libraries,” she said from the swivel chair behind her desk. “The children’s room was in the basement. I haven’t been back there in quite a while. But it haunts me.”
Sitting behind an enormous desktop computer, wrapped in a dark purple sweater and scarf, her voice takes on a dreamlike quality as she talks about her childhood in southern New Jersey. As soon as she could read, she said, she began scouring her parents’ book collection, hiking herself up onto the kitchen counter to look at her mother’s cookbooks. She still remembers one in particular, The Settlement Cookbook, by Mrs. Simon Kander.
“There’s a recipe in there for a flour ball. I’ll never forget—I was so fascinated with it,” she said. “And then there was one for beef tea, for someone who is frail. The book has an entire section dedicated to invalid recipes, for people who are sick or weak.”
Slotnick’s passion for cookbooks, however, doesn’t stem from a love of cooking, but a love of history. She is drawn by the stories behind recipes, by the way that old cookbooks can paint a picture of different time periods. When she was 9, she found a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, the 1922 book that details how members of high society should behave. She was enthralled.
“We lived in a split-level house on a little piece of property, and then all of a sudden I’m in here, reading about how to present the breakfast menu when people are staying with you in your country house,” she said. “I used to stretch out under the dining room table and read it.”
It was a different book, however, that turned Bonnie onto cookbooks—a small, pocket-sized booklet from World War II called Good Ideas. Inside were hundreds of short recipes and housekeeping tips meant to help the reader endure rationing during the war. This was what attracted Slotnick; she loved to read recipes that began with phrases like, “If you’re lucky enough to find this sweetened canned milk…” Now the booklet is brown and the binding is long gone, worn down from over 50 years of handling. It sits on Slotnick’s desk in a plastic case, with a label that reads, “Our Founder.”
Slotnick interrupted her reminiscences to assist Elaine, a customer in her thirties who has been searching for cookbooks from the early 1900s. As she pays for her purchases, Elaine tells Slotnick how comforting the store is, something Slotnick has heard before. On Sept. 13, 2001, lots of people came in and spent hours just reading through books. It made them feel better.
Elaine had only come into the store to buy one book. She’s leaving with three.
“Not that I have the time to make all of these things, but I just like reading through them,” she said. “Before I go to sleep I like to read them. It’s very relaxing.”
Slotnick laughed. Many of her customers admit to reading cookbooks in bed, for enjoyment rather than practical purposes. She, too, reads the cookbooks for pleasure.
“Before the turn of the century, the whole recipe was written as a narrative,” she said. “And I just find that I can read those like a narrative.”
There’s also the historical aspect: cookbooks are like family Bibles, Slotnick said. She scans a shelf for a moment before pulling down Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book and Marketing Guide by Maria Parloa, printed in 1880. Slotnick flipped through a few pages before she found what she was looking for—a pressed flower that was in the book when she bought it.
“You don’t get that in your Kindle!” she said with a laugh.
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