Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Cookbook Specialist Bonnie Slotnick: Keeping the Spirit of "Book Row" Alive

Greenwich Village is filled with people who came here to do one thing and ended up doing another, quite happily. One of them is Bonnie Slotnick, who arrived in 1972 to study art at Parsons School of Design and ended up specializing in and selling old cookbooks.

            For the past 12 years she has owned and operated Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks at 163 West 10th Street, a 350-square-foot cabinet of wonders packed floor to ceiling with 4,000 used, vintage and antiquarian cookbooks in a cozy room adorned with cooking utensils, crockery and ephemera. For those who love to be in close proximity to the printed word, especially words pertaining to shopping for, thinking about or preparing food, this is as close as you will get to heaven on earth.  

            As a new transfer from Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art living in NYU housing, recalls Slotnick, “I used to look down Tenth Street and say, ‘Someday I’m going to live on that block.’” Three years later her dream came true when she lucked into a sublet next to the 10th Street post office; she has lived there ever since. 

            Slotnick discovered a love for library science while working part-time at the Parson’s library, but couldn’t bear the idea of going to graduate school in that subject. So she parlayed her impressive SAT and GRE scores into a job as an editorial assistant for the book packager Rebus Inc, eventually becoming a cookbook editor there.

            A self-professed “language person” Slotnick haunted the many bookstores that dotted the Village and Chelsea back then, along 23rd Street, 14th Street and on “Book Row,” Fourth Avenue below Union Square. Although she wasn’t an avid cook, she had a passion for cookbooks, and had already started collecting them.  The long-gone Corner Book Shop, on Book Row, operated by American cookbook scholar and bibliographer Eleanor Lowenstein, was a favorite spot.

             About the time she began working at Rebus, Slotnick also began moonlighting as a partner and out-of-print cookbook specialist at the Upper East Site cookbook store Kitchen Arts & Letters. In those pre-internet, pre-Amazon days, Slotnick went on regular book-buying trips throughout New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and as far afield as England and Canada, sometimes visiting as many as seven or eight bookstores a day. “There isn’t any place in the country where you can do that these days,” she says somewhat wistfully. “It was such a pleasure.”

            “It was always in the back of my mind to open my own store,” Slotnick  continues, “because I wasn’t getting credit for what I was doing. I think that is the problem of women in the work world.” She left Kitchen Arts & Letters in 1997 and moved her cookbook collection into a small space on Washington Place. Shortly after she quit her publishing job in 2000, she opened her West 10th Street shop.

            Slotnick’s customers, she says, include chefs hunting for unusual ideas, collectors looking to complete a set, locals who want “something a little different to cook for their families,” and pilgrims from out of town who browse for hours. Many come in search of a book that their mother or grandmother had (Betty Crocker and the Good Housekeeping cookbooks are two evergreens), though Slotnick is more likely to light up at rare finds such as the women’s auxiliary of the Jewish community of the Philippines cookbook. Etiquette books are one of her specialties—one favorite is the dryly humorous 1928 Emily Post book, How to Behave Though a Debutante.

            Another of Slotnick’s specialties is books about New York restaurants, including old restaurant guides. The bygone restaurants of the Village still live in Slotnick’s memory, and that fact helps shape her strong opinions on the current restaurant landscape. She wishes that restaurateurs “would just leave the old things that are in the Village alone, instead of taking them over, gutting them, and recreating them in ‘fake old.’”

            She points to the recent dust-up over a proposed makeover of her beloved Waverly Restaurant at Sixth and Waverly Place. When residents saw renderings of the redesign, the hue and cry from the community was so great that owners toned down the renovation, keeping its red vinyl booth aesthetic and 8”x10” photos of forgotten actors on the walls.

            When she’s not at her shop, Slotnick can be found either volunteering at the Sheridan Square Garden, doing battle with truck drivers who leave their motors idling while parked in the bike lane, or on another volunteer mission for the city’s parks department: roaming Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on mounted horse patrol.

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