The Joy of Cookbook Shopping: Why Bookstore Tourism Matters 

The first puzzle one encounters when seeking out (or stumbling upon) Bonnie Slotnick’s bookstore in New York is how to enter. Perplexed non-locals can often be seen standing in front of the shop, housed in a century-old building in the miasma of the West Village’s tangled streets, staring into the big picture window where Slotnick usually displays books based on a theme. Here’s a hint: walk up the stoop, past the mailboxes, and down the hallway; just before the door where the building’s residents take their final steps returning being home, turn to the right–there you will find a strange and increasingly unusual world: a rare and out-of-print cookbook shop.

Bookstore tourism is becoming increasingly popular. Threats to independent bookshops’ existance posed by big chains and online booksellers have inspired a new motivation for travel. The New York Times recently ran a travel feature on bookshops in San Francisco. The Los Angeles Times has done the same for New York. Gadling got into the act a couple years before that. And for bookshop lovers (and/or for the 99.9 percent of us who don’t have a butler or staff at home to prepare food), Bonnie Slotnick’s shop is one of the country’s coolest bookstores.

Slotnick, who has owned the shop since 1997, thinks cookbooks shouldn’t just be for, you know, cooking.

“When I look at an old cookbook, it takes me away, to another place,” said Slotnick who says cookbooks are a great alternative to travel. “My customers tell me they read them like novels, detective stories, and even like porn.”

In that case, Slotnick’s shop is a museum dedicated to international and historic food porn. Where else, for example, can you browse through a Burmese or Kashmiri or Nepali cookbook? Or pick up a “risque” guide to traditional Ukrainian recipes? Ever wondered what Salvador Dali liked to eat? It’s on the shelf. Weren’t you just thinking you wanted a Russian cookbook, published in 1955, filled with enough Communist propaganda to make Bernie Sanders look like a member of the Tea Party? It’s here (though, sadly, there are no booths for private viewing).

Or would you rather get acquainted with the greats–get to know your MFK Fisher from your James Beard–or pick up a signed copy of an early edition of The Joy of Cooking (just $260)? Slotnick has it among the 4,000 books crammed in her narrow, diminutive shop.

But not everyone is looking for a good narrative in a cookbook. Chefs from some of New York’s most celebrated restaurants often pop in to see if they can revive an old recipe. Mark Ladner from Del Posto, April Bloomfield from the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, Andrew Carmellini from Locanda Verde, and Shane McBride (formerly of Colichio and Sons) have all been in. So has celebrity chef Tyler Florence. “I also get a lot of the younger chefs–from the Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud restaurants, for example–looking to learn the old school stuff,” Slotnick adds.

This brings up the next piece of the puzzle: how is it that in lower Manhattan in 2011, in a neighborhood that that’s becoming increasingly expensive and homogenized, and whose very historic character is being threatened by the encroaching gold-plated presence of Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein (among others), does such a wonderful anomaly still exist?

Slotnick boils it down to the beauty of physically browsing for and buying a book.

“Each book is an individual personal story. Which is a reason I think the Kindle is not going to fully replace the actual book.”

She pauses, looks around at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and then adds: “There won’t be any Kindle material that goes back to 1823.”

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks is (usually) open six days a week–if you can find it. Just leave the Kindle at home.