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.

Cambridge named UK’s most boring place to shop

Cambridge is high on many visitors’ lists of places to go in England. The historic colleges of Cambridge University are almost as impressive as those of Oxford, and punting on the River Cam rivals a boat journey on the River Isis.

Oxford and Cambridge have always been rivals, but now Oxonians can sit back, smug in the knowledge that the “other” university is in a town deemed the blandest place to shop in the UK. The New Economics Foundation just released a list of 117 UK cities and towns ranked by the variety of shops in their centers. Cambridge came in dead last.

In a scathing review, the NEF described “a bland homogeneity” in the city center with only nine different types of shop.

Perhaps Cambridge students are too busy preparing for Suicide Sunday to think about shopping, or perhaps like many university students they only want to go to the same old, predictable stores. The study’s organizers point the finger at the university, the town’s main landlords, for pushing up rents too high for independent businesses to afford. Personally, I’ve been to Cambridge several times and while I’m not an avid shopper I didn’t notice it to be terribly homogeneous. At least the range of independent used bookshops is great thanks to students unloading their books at the end of term. But I haven’t been since 2004, so perhaps things have taken a turn for the worse.

So who ranked the best? Whitstable, a seaside town near Canterbury, which the survey said had an amazing variety of independent shops.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Dunn]

Five things to do in Orlando (except … that)

This is the only time you’ll see the expression “theme park” in this post. Orlando has a lot to offer outside that. So, if you’re headed down there for a convention or a family trip, keep these other attractions in mind, and explore the depth this city has to offer. Plan ahead, and you can avoid the “Mouse” trap!

  1. Make a glass, buy some art: Go to Keila Glassworks, and look for the guy with the dredlocks down to his ass. Check out his art: it’s stunning. Charley Keila, the genius behind the place, offers glassblowing classes, so ou can get a taste of the act of creation.
  2. Stay in an “art” hotel: Pass on the major chains, and stay at the EO Inn. Don’t sweat the fact that it doesn’t have a restaurant; that’ll force you to get out and find a place.
  3. Drink at a bookstore: Urban Think! has a bar in the bookstore. Grab a book (I suggest Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, the latest by Michael Lewis), and chill for a bit at the bar.
  4. Try to fly: Strap on a harness, climb a ladder and let the wind whip through your hair. Grand Lakes Orlando has zip lines that stretch for tk meters.
  5. Leave: Get out to Winter Park, and see the upscale side of the Orlando area. Cruise the lakes on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, and then wander along tk-street. Stop for a glass of wine at one of the wine bars that dot the sidewalk.



Undiscovered New York: Unique NYC shopping

New Yorkers, you might be surprised to discover, like to shop. Whether it’s for sky-high stilettos or a jar of saffron, a copy of Candide or specialty cameras, you can be sure that if it can be purchased they probably sell it somewhere in New York City’s Five Boroughs.

Under normal circumstances New York is a city where conspicuous consumption rules and money is no object. But as many Americans can attest, the current economic climate has hit retailers and consumers hard, and everyone is cutting back and feeling the pinch. Yet all the bad news has had a curiously positive effect on the New York retailing scene. For all the talk of excess, New York remains a surprisingly affordable and remarkably diverse place to shop if you know where to look. A place where consumers value quality, craftsmanship and creativity and a good bargain above all else.

So instead of dwelling on New York’s gilded streets of consumption like SoHo and Fifth Avenue, we’d like to take you inside some of the city’s quirkier and more interesting retail establishments. Looking to “shop like a local” and pick some highly original New York bargains along the way? Welcome inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to unique city shopping…
The types of goods sold in New York are literally endless. To pretend to create any kind of comprehensive list would be both fruitless and foolish. Instead, we’re going to be listing of some of our favorite retailers from across the city in gender-neutral categories such as books, travel, music and food. Men’s and women’s clothing could make an entire post of its own and won’t be covered here – if you’re looking for more fashion info, definitely check out New York Magazine.

Travel Stores: As befitting a travel blog, it’s only fair we mention a few New York retailers who specialize in travel accessories and products. Our favorites include:

  • Kiosk (95 Spring Street, Manhattan) – The globally-savvy owners of New York’s Kiosk have carved out an interesting retail niche. Rather than concentrate one specific type of product, they’ve unearthed a variety of small inexpensive curiosities from around the world, ranging from the practical to the whimsical. The collection of items, which includes everything from Finnish bottle openers to pitting spoons from California, is highly diverse and constantly changing.
  • Flight 001 (Multiple Locations) – Flight 001 is a retailer that specializes in a highly curated collection of great travel products, spanning the gamut from travel luggage and guidebooks to packing aids and pill bottles. New York happens to be blessed with three of the chain’s seven U.S. stores, two which can be found in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. Stop by and pick up some carry-on bags, a travel wallet and some shampoo sheets for your next trip.

Books: Reading comes as naturally to New Yorkers as breathing. As a global center of the publishing industry and home to a highly literate citizenry, this is a city that takes its books seriously, whether it’s the latest Dean Koontz paperback or a store that sells antique books from the 19th Century.

  • The Strand (828 Broadway, Manhattan) – Boasting its status as the “Home of 18 Miles of New, Used, Rare and Out of Print Books,” The Strand Bookstore is the undisputed champion of bookselling in New York. Be prepared to walk in and get lost in aisle after aisle of books covering every possible subject matter. The prices are pretty good too, frequently below retail.
  • St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 Third Ave, Manhattan) – what St. Mark’s bookshop lacks in size compared to The Strand, it more than makes up for in its meticulous collection of quirky and eclectic book offerings, including everything from progressive political manifestos to international magazines and large-size art books.
  • powerHouse Books (37 Main St, Brooklyn) – half art gallery, half bookstore, the cavernous retail space for DUMBO-based book retailer powerHouse never fails to delight. The store has a particularly good collection of coffee table-size photography books.

Food: New Yorkers seem to have a nose for sniffing out the most diverse and delicious food from around the world, and the city’s specialty food retailers are no exception. Here’s a few of our favorites:

  • Despaña (408 Broome St, Manhattan) – if you’ve ever visited Spain, you know how crave-worthy the food can be. That’s why Spanish-specialty store Despaña has become a New York foodie’s best-kept secret. The store’s deli country can slice up specialty Spanish meats like Jamon Serrano and regional canned delicacies like white beans and clams.
  • Sahadi’s (187 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn) – if Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue is the cultural epicenter of the city’s Middle Eastern food scene, Sahadi’s is most certainly its bullseye. The gourmet grocer stocks all manner of specialty olive oils, nuts and imported delicacies from far flung locales like Turkey and Lebanon.

Music: Similar to their zeal for the written word, New Yorkers are avid consumers of music. The city offers an awe-inspiring diversity of music shops, whether you’re hoping to go digging through crates of used vinyl or just pick up the latest CD by that teen-pop sensation.

  • Other Music (15 E. 4th St, Manhattan) – nobody has their finger on the beat of New York’s fickle music consumers better than Other Music. Their highly-knowledgeable staff is great at picking out those hidden gems and introducing you to new genres and up-and-coming artists. In addition to new music, the store also stocks vinyl, used CD’s and sells tickets to many of the city’s best upcoming concerts.
  • Halcyon (57 Pearl St, Brooklyn) – New York DJ’s, vinyl-lovers and beat junkies head to Halycon to get the latest and greatest sounds destined for the dance floors and turntables of New York. In addition to being one of the best places in the city to get your hands on electronic music, Halcyon also stocks a nice collection of books, clothing, artwork and quirky toys.
  • A-1 Records (439 E. 6th St, Manhattan) – frequently described as a “crate-digger’s paradise,” A-1 Records upholds the legacy of a once-thriving music scene in New York’s East Village. If you’re looking for more obscure finds, this is a great place to look. Vinyl only.

Wow, that’s a lot of stores! As you’re beginning to see, New York is home to some of the country’s best independent retailers, specializing in everything from Lebanese olive oils to vintage books. But maybe there’s an independent New York store that we didn’t cover? Feel free to leave a comment below and tell us your favorites.

Bookstores as a travel pursuit (part 2)

A few days ago Jamie talked about going to book talks and readings as a travel pursuit. So what about going for the bookstores themselves? It turns out there’s a word for these places: “destination bookstores.”

It can be as simple as a bookstore where visiting authors have signed their names on the chairs they sat in. Or a place like That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas, the famous literary headwaters of native-son John Grisham. Or try City Lights in San Francisco, which attracts thousands of tourists a year who come to see the hangout of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

And for you New Yorkers, there’s the famous bookstore at Broadway and 12th Street, The Strand. It’s got something like 4 miles of shelve space–and it’s an unparalleled place for finding rare and out-of-print books. Of course, The Strand is also well known for feeding an entire army of homeless people who scrounge in recycle bins for books to sell to the store. (See this New York Times piece from last week profiling these entrepreneurs).

Check out nine destination bookstores here; if you’re lucky, one may be just around the corner.