It was a chilly mid-November day whose slate-gray sky constantly threatened showers, so I bundled up in both a fleece and a raincoat. In such intemperate weather, I usually arm myself with a strong cup of coffee and a good book. One problem: I didn’t have anything to read. Luckily, I was in New York City. Though there has been much talk in recent years about the death of the printed word, Gotham is home to a wealth of excellent bookstores. The best aren’t necessarily the sprawling general-interest shops; they’re the ones designed to be the ultimate geek-out spots for subject-specific bookworms.
Case in point is Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in Manhattan’s East Village, which spent 17 years in the West Village before moving to its current location last February. Tucked below street level in a basement, it has a comfortable, lived-in feel. Coming in, I heard the whirl of a dryer punctuated by the metallic clinks of buttons and zippers hitting the inside of the drum — a remnant from the days when the space was an apartment. A door in the back provided a glimpse of an open-air courtyard garden. Its inviting warmth practically demanded I shuck my jackets and relax.
But there was no doubt this was a commercial rather than domestic enterprise. The small space was chockablock with out-of-print cookbooks. Organized by region or specialty, they filled the shelves lining every wall and the tables punctuating the room. In between the nearly 5,000 tomes were a slew of culinary tools and tchotchkes — egg cups, a vintage waffle iron, cookie cutters, old matchbooks, antique postcards, muffin tins and a white porcelain mannequin with a toque jauntily perched on its head.
Where to begin? I asked the supremely knowledgeable Slotnick for some guidance on Southern baking bibles. “Have you read this? Do you know this one?” she asked as she helped me collect a stack of nearly a dozen contenders.
It was soon apparent that Bill Neal’s “Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie” was what my library — and stomach — was missing. After all, here were recipes for brown sugar pie, hominy cheese waffles and Zephyrinas (old-fashioned, Charleston-style crackers). With my purchase tucked into my backpack and visions of future culinary projects dancing in my head, I hopped on the F subway two stops over to Brooklyn.
Singularity & Co. is just a few blocks from the station, down an old cobblestone street patched with black asphalt and engraved with long-disused trolley tracks. Devoted to used science-fiction, fantasy and pulp favorites, it’s the kind of bookstore I would have visited as frequently as possible in my teenage years. I knew I had arrived when I saw a door buzzer next to a sign that read, “Join the Singularity,” a double reference to entering the bookstore and embracing the hypothetical moment when machines become smarter than the humans who created them. Up a short set of steps and past a bulletin board decorated with old paperback covers was a one-room bookstore brimming with genre favorites from Asimov to Zelazny.
A mishmash of anachronistic and futuristic ephemera decorated the mostly gray room — a suit of armor, an old video-game system, models of the Millennium Falcon and the USS Enterprise. Titles were generally organized alphabetically by author, though there was no accounting for what may or may not have been in stock. I was on the hunt for Alfred Bester’s tough-to-find 1957 cult classic “The Stars My Destination.” Sure, I could pick up a copy on Amazon, but what’s the fun in that?
After half an hour of fruitless searching, I happily settled for Ben Bova’s “The Exiles Trilogy” — an unchecked box on my sci-fi bucket list — and Fred Saberhagen’s “Pyramids.” I knew nothing about the latter, but since it had a pharaoh and a spaceship on the cover, I figured it couldn’t be too bad since that shtick worked well for “Stargate SG-1” for 10 seasons. (I only think dorky thoughts like this; I swear I come across as well adjusted at cocktail parties.) Only $10 for the two, which went right into my backpack.
That evening, I returned to the Algonquin Hotel, the most literary hotel in the city. Dorothy Parker and her Vicious Circle helped invent modern snark over regular lunches there. J.D. Salinger, Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Maya Angelou were all regulars. William Faulkner knocked out his 1950 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in his hotel room. The musicals “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot” were written there. Entrepreneurial editor Harold Ross secured funding for the New Yorker from a backer who played in the same poker game at the hotel. It was equally intimidating and inspiring as a writer to be around even just the echoes of such talent.
I was staying in a well-appointed two-room suite on the 12th floor named after the hotel’s late manager-turned-owner, Frank Case. He, too, was an author, with three titles to his name, including the cookbook “Feeding the Lions,” which features recipes from some of the hotel’s most famous guests. The hotel instantly endeared itself to me when I put out the do-not-disturb door hanger, which read, “Quiet, please. Writing the Great American Novel.” I will definitely accidentally walk out with that at the end of my visit.
The next morning, Books of Wonder in the Flatiron District was at the top of my check-out list. Focusing on children’s literature and young-adult fiction, as well as rare books, signed editions and original artwork, the shop was a true delight. The upper reaches were decorated with cutouts of instantly recognizable characters — Pooh, the Mad Hatter, the Wimpy Kid — all hovering over an impeccably curated selection of iconic titles and freshly minted classics-in-the-making. My son was on the verge of turning 3, so I was aiming to get him an adventure-driven picture book in the same vein as Mark Taylor’s “Henry the Explorer,” which I still deeply treasure.
A helpful clerk politely suffered through my reminiscing about Henry’s escapades, then graciously introduced me to “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole,” written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen, who also did the artwork for one of my son’s favorite books, Lemony Snicket’s “The Dark.” Sold! Into the backpack it went.
The final stop on my tour was the travel-focused Idlewild Books, just a couple of blocks away. When I made it up to the second-story shop, I found a spirited Spanish class being conducted in the front window area overlooking the street. Though every once in a while a proper noun would slip into the conversation (Trump, Putin and Lady Gaga all made appearances — what were they talking about?!), the teacher spoke only English to explain the finest points.
As the group chatted energetically, I browsed the excellent selection of travel guides, global literature and children’s books in English, French and Spanish. I opted for a novel: Sebastian Barry’s “The Temporary Gentleman,” which is set in my wife’s home country of Ghana. Always looking for ways to educate myself on a country I have yet to visit, I purchased it and headed back into the brisk midday.
My backpack was heavy. All I needed was a bracing cup of coffee or two. Then I remembered the Algonquin offered free coffee 24 hours a day in the lobby. They really did know how to make a writer — and a reader — feel right at home.
Martell is a Washington writer and the author of several books, including “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.” On Twitter: @nevinmartell.
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59 W. 44th St.
Famed luxury haunt of numerous literary luminaries featuring comfortably appointed rooms with a vintage sensibility and modern amenities just off Times Square. Rates vary.
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
28 E. Second St.
Charming basement bookstore packed to the ceiling with out-of-print cookbooks, food-related ephemera and vintage kitchen gear. Open 1 to 7 p.m. most days (check the website for a weekly schedule) and by appointment.
Singularity & Co.
18 Bridge St.
Offers a strong selection of reasonably priced vintage sci-fi, fantasy and pulp in a nerded-out space next to the Manhattan Bridge. Open Thursdays through Sundays noon to 7 p.m.
Books of Wonder
18 W. 18th St.
A cheery, high-ceilinged bookstore with impeccable selections of children’s and young-adult books as well as rare titles and original book-related art. Open Mondays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
12 W. 19th St.
Travel guides, global literature and children’s books in French and Spanish as well as a number of language classes. Open Mondays through Thursdays noon to 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays noon to 6 p.m., closed Sundays.