Why Cookbook Stores Are the Antidote We Need Right Now
“I love it when people walk in for the first time and say, ‘It’s just cookbooks? I could live here!’”
Bonnie Slotnick hasn’t taken a vacation since 1997, the year she opened her eponymous cookbook store. But the shop is a trip itself, providing a culinary passage through time and place. In addition to the vintage titles that line the shelves一books that teach you how to master the art of Oaxacan, Austrian, or Creole cooking一you’ll find food-related trinkets: matchbooks from New York City restaurants long-gone, a Delft-style plate from The Netherlands, and retro cookie cutters.
“Occasionally, I’m able to find something for somebody that they’ve been looking for for years,” Slotnick says, standing over a cart of books. “Maybe it was a book their grandmother had, that they didn’t even consciously remember. But then they see it. And sometimes they start crying. And that’s when I say, ‘You don’t get that on Amazon.’”
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks is one of the few surviving cookbook stores in the United States, providing a respite from the fast-paced, quick-snippet cooking videos we’re used to today. These shops run the gamut—featuring out-of-print titles and modern cooking publications, as well as hosting classes, dinner parties, and clubs.
For Slotnick, it all began when she became particularly attached to the only cookbook her mother owned, The Settlement Cook Book. It was a collection of recipes originally published in 1901, intended to teach Jewish immigrants arriving in Milwaukee how to run a household. Despite the fact that the book had no photographs, Slotnick would read it for hours.
“It was almost like a pacifier,” she recalls. As she got older, she began to frequent used bookstores, finding books from even earlier eras. “They made me feel like I was transported back in time.”
When she first moved to New York, she lived in the Village, where there happened to be many used bookstores. “The building I lived in was built in the late 19th century, and I would find these books that were right from that time period,” she remembers. “I tried to imagine what it would be like to shop and cook and keep house and go up three flights of stairs in a floor-length skirt.”
That led to a burgeoning personal collection and a part-time gig at Kitchen Arts and Letters, which is still around today. On top of her job in publishing, Slotnick would search for out-of-print titles that customers requested at the store. Twelve years and 2,000 books later, her own used book business was born. “I’d rather have a book that was published 40 years ago that I know a lot of my friends have cooked from,” she says.
But for Clementine Thomas of Bold Fork Books in Washington DC, modern cookbooks have excelled when it comes to telling stories. “I think narrative has become such an important part of the cookbooks that have come out in the last five or six years,” she explains. “And, during the pandemic, there was all of this renewed focus on social and racial justice, so people were paying closer attention to the kinds of voices that they were allowing into their home kitchens.”
Newcomers on the scene, Thomas and her husband Sam Vasfi opened their shop less than a year ago. Both had been working in the restaurant industry for many years, and when the pandemic gave them some time to step away, they decided to start their retirement plan early.
“DC has grown as a food city, both in terms of the restaurant industry and the interest of home cooks,” Thomas says. “We’re also a hub for food policy walks and food justice activism. It just seemed like our community could use a place to bring together all of these groups of people who were connected to food in such different ways.”
The pandemic also brought about a change in appetite. “After a year in which everybody was stuck at home and cooking all of these super technical things, I think people might be moving in another direction, which is a little bit more intuitive, a little bit more easy going,” Thomas says. And the books that reflect this shift—Crave by Ed Smith, No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton and At Home in the Kitchen by David Kinch—have all been selling.
The cookbooks offered at Slotnick’s shop might be more on the elaborate side, but they contain something that no new cookbook could ever possess: traces of those who once owned them.
“As the great baking author Maida Heatter once said, people should write in their cookbooks because their descendants will appreciate it,” Slotnick says. “I find these little notes and receipts and things in the books sometimes and get totally caught up in research. It’s not just about the recipes. It’s not about celebrity chefs, who I mostly ignore. Another reason I don't sell new books. I don't like that whole culture of TV chefiness.”
“Do I have an amen?” she asks, to a customer who is openly listening to our conversation.
“Absolutely,” he responds.
This human connection is what Slotnick’s store is all about. Beyond the neighborly back-and-forth, there’s a fascinating way in which books get discovered in such an analog space. She explains how, sometimes, customers will come in with an idea of the book they want, find it on a shelf, and instead opt for the book right next to it. Or in another instance, a customer might look at a book and leave it on a table, or leave it sticking out of the shelf a bit, and the next person who comes in will buy it.
“When I get new books, I put them out on the tables in no order, because I want people to investigate what’s there,” she says. “There’s a lot of interaction between whatever group of people happens to be in here at a given time. It could be somebody in their 70s and somebody in their teens and they might kind of cross-pollinate somehow.”
Because 99% of her books are purchased from individuals, Slotnick cherishes the interactions she has with sellers. “It leads to very interesting conversations about food in New York, history, where people have lived,” she says. “And, I don’t know, I’m just very susceptible to overwhelming nostalgia.”
Lara Hamilton, owner of cookbook store Book Larder in Seattle, is no stranger to the sense of culinary community that a niche bookstore can create. “I love it when people walk in for the first time and say, ‘It’s just cookbooks? I could live here!’” she says.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this fall, Book Larder also houses a large kitchen space for author talks and cooking classes. And Hamilton’s favorite anecdote centers around the shop’s Monday lunch break classes. “I commented on how great it was to see long-time friends using the class as a way of getting together,” she says. “Turns out, they had actually met at an earlier class and become close that way, and their husbands and families are all friends now, too.”
Of course, the beauty of having a brick-and-mortar shop is that it gives staff the opportunity to make expert recommendations. Hamilton’s go-to is Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone. “It showed me that vegetarianism didn’t have to be brown and boring and it was the first book I owned that had a strong voice and point of view,” she says. “It was published 20 years ago and is still on heavy rotation in my kitchen.”
But equally valuable is the recommendations that owners get from their customers. “It’s important to me to try to be as cognizant as possible about my own blind spots and limitations,” Thomas says. “I talk to people who come into the shop—chef friends, bartender friends, and home cooks—just trying to get as many recommendations as possible.” And the same goes for Slotnick, who says customers guide her toward new topics all the time.
After talking with Slotnick a while, she finally leads me to The Settlement Cook Book. She talks about the history of the settlement house in Milwaukee, how the money raised by the book sales led to a new building, when the copyright was sold, and how she loves the fact that familiar Jewish recipes share the page with tamale loaf or chop suey. She points out that, ever since she was a kid, her favorite illustration had been a chapter heading in which two children are blissfully eating ice cream.
“This is the one that started it all,” she says fondly.
To find your next favorite cookbook or take a journey back in time, check out these cookbook stores across the country.
Brooklyn, New York
Named after the ancient Sicilian poet who wrote one of the world’s first cookbooks, Archestratus is a hub for cookbooks and food magazines old and new, groceries and CSA, Sicilian-inspired fare and pastries, and a Cookbook Club. Chef and owner Paige Lippari, who is famous for her arancine and rainbow cookies, channeled her literary curiosity while working at various bookstores, including the rare book department at Housing Works. She is currently working on a next-door expansion for her Greenpoint shop, which will be dedicated entirely to book browsing, while the original space will offer more space to enjoy her crowd-pleasing food and drink. In September, Archestratus will be hosting a “Year in Review” pot-luck party, in which guests are encouraged to cook dishes from the Cookbook Club titles of the past year.
Husband-wife duo Clementine Thomas and Sam Vasfi opened their Mount Pleasant cookbook shop just under a year ago. Inspired by the inviting atmosphere of Montreal’s Appetite for Books, the couple knew they wanted to design a space that was welcoming, with floor to ceiling bookcases and bright, green kitchen-like cabinets. Bold Fork Books specializes in modern titles, both regional and international, with an emphasis on diverse authors. For now, they’re holding virtual events, like an author talk with Matthew Raiford of Bress ‘N’ Nyam and a baking demo with Roxana Jullapat of Mother Grains.
New York, New York
Bonnie Slotnick’s East Village shop is tucked away in the lower level of a townhouse, advertised by a humble sign that reads “Cook Books.” You’ll find shelves dedicated to a history of French or Italian cooking, tables with Slotnick’s latest acquisitions scattered about, and a backyard garden. After spending hours learning about food trends throughout the years—fad diets, gelatin molds, 1,001 ways to please a husband—you can scan a QR code Slotnick has posted to upload the East Village Community Coalition's shopping guide for the neighborhood.
Seattle’s community cookbook store, Book Larder, focuses on new releases. The shop’s in-house kitchen lends itself to a lunch break cooking class series, in which an expert cook leads a demonstration inspired by a new cookbook. Book Larder also has its own podcast, featuring conversations with cookbook authors like Lukas Volger of Start Simple.
New York, New York
Founded in 1983 by Nach Waxman, Kitchen Arts & Letters boasts more than 12,000 titles. Julia Child, James Beard, and Laurie Colwin were among the shop’s earliest customers, and Michelin three-star chefs from around the world continue to shop here today. You’ll find new releases as well as some rare editions, and if there’s an out-of-print title that you’re looking for, Waxman’s team will lead a search to find it. Kitchen Arts & Letters also carries books on food politics, food scholarship, food history, and chef biographies.
Los Angeles, California
Chef Ken Concepcion and makeup artist Michelle Mungcal teamed up in 2018 to open Now Serving, a well-curated selection of cookbooks in LA’s Chinatown. In addition to a hefty selection of indie food magazines, you’ll find a pantry collection of specialty food items like chili oil and tinned fish, as well as hand-carved ceramics and sustainably-made aprons. While in-store shopping has been replaced with local pickup for the time being, Concepcion and Mungcal are currently in the midst of re-opening the stop. Until then, you can tune in to recordings of virtual author talks.
San Francisco, California
Omnivore Books on Food has been the go-to meeting place for the Bay Area’s food community since 2008. Long-time book collector Celia Sack offers an extensive selection of antiquarian food writing, as well as collectibles like vintage menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. But there is also abundant space for new titles, and Sack is known for bringing in the world’s most renowned chefs and authors, like David Lebovitz and Nigella Lawson. Some in-store author events to look forward to this month and next include conversations with Chris McDade, author of The Magic of Tinned Fish and Mariana Velásquez, author of Colombiana.
Rabelais houses perhaps the oldest inventory of food writing on this list, with books that date back to the 16th century. Samantha Hoyt Lindgren and Don Lindgren’s collection is so rare that they often sell to collectors, special collections librarians, and food professionals around the world. A destination for research, Rabelais showcases a history of culinary texts, encouraging visitors to enhance their understanding of the cultural heritage of food. And you don’t have to be in the market for a rare manuscript to enjoy the store; simply flicking through antique distilling manuals might be enough to change the way you think about cocktails.