The phone in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll in the windshield costs $295. Or at least, if the seller was willing to part with it. Passers-by are constantly asking about it. Instead, they get to choose from memoirs by ’90s sitcom stars, Chopin’s yellowed sheet music, and illustrated books about dog grooming. And pickles.
Sweet Pickle Books is mostly a bookstore, with a healthy sideshow of artisan pickles and various donated knick knacks. Since Leigh Altshuler opened her tiny shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side a year ago, much of her inventory has been donated to the store.
“All my friends are about 80,” said Ms. Altshuler from behind an assigned tanker truck desk, showing a VHS copy of “Crossing Delancey” the 80s movie about a pickle peddler who falls in love with a bookseller in this neighborhood. It is also not for sale.
“I have about three million old ladies calling me, who I eventually became friends with,” said Ms. Altshuler. “They always ask me to come over.” Her new friends and other Lower East Siders feel compelled to contribute to their discovery of the store by, for example, passing on their still-pristine copy of Rick Steves’ 2002 guidebook to Rome.
And shoppers are looking forward to it. “Recently someone left a giant FreshDirect bag with old DVDs like ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding,’ some tiny wine glasses, and a half-eaten bag of Fritos,” said Ms. Altshuler. “Sold everything except the Fritos.”
Ms. Altshuler, 30, lives four blocks from the store with her boyfriend, Costa Damaskos, 29, who runs a design firm.
RIVER DANCE This is what Costa and I try to do when the sun comes up on Sunday: we walk along the East River, under the FDR. There’s a whole world going on at Pier 36 that people don’t know about. Men in their 60s and 70s doing tai chi – it really works. Boys fishing. Women who do an incredible choreographed dance to obscure, techno-esque songs pumping through a loudspeaker should drive them out on a dolly. I don’t know who is in charge, who chooses the music; but no one takes selfies and posts them on Instagram; support their iPhone, do something for TikTok. And I’m like, if these women can come here and do this dance at 6:30 in the morning, just at… to do I can certainly be at work on time today.
CASH ONLY At some point in the morning I’m making juice with fruit from one of those kitchen shops on East Broadway. Whatever products TLB Trading has – ginger, carrot, bok choy, apples. They have everything. It’s hard to leave without buying small kitchen items. For example, a tiny cheese grater. Every time we go I think, “I’ll bring cash because it’s cash only.” And Costa will say, “No, it isn’t.” Then he’ll try to pay with a credit card, and they’ll say, “It’s cash only.” That happens every time.
SUPPLY CHAIN For weeks, a lady in her 80s named Pearl kept knocking on the shop door and saying, “You’ve got to stop by! My neighbor down Seward Park has a book collection he needs to show you. He doesn’t have a phone.” When I finally succumbed and walked over to the neighbor in question, Milton, who turned out to be literally 100 years old, said: ‘I have 4,000 books. And you know, I’m getting a little older now and need to get rid of a few. I just need help.”
FULLY BOOKED So now I clean Milton’s house on weekends. It is a two minute drive from the shop. I could walk it, but when I go I don’t get one box, I get a car full. I paid a Craigslist guy cash for my 2004 silver Jeep Liberty with a zillion miles on it. And I can’t let this car die. Sometimes smoke comes out. People say, “Your car smokes!” And I’m like, “Oh, I know.”
SHOPTALK When I open the shop in the afternoon, there are always books and bags of stuff on the sidewalk. Usually when people come in wanting to sell me their books, I offer them cash and they say, “I just want the pickles.” Although there is still a woman in her 70s who brings in a leather briefcase full of cassette tapes. Um, I don’t want the cassette tapes. Not at all. But there’s just something about her that she brings to me. So I check them all out; I count them. Then buy them all with cash instead of pickles.
DINNER DATE AT WU’S At 6 am I lock the door and my work week is finally over – Monday is my only day off. I’m like, done. Costa and I have dinner at this Chinese joint across from our apartment, Wu’s Won Ton King. Lo mien, bok choy, vegetarian noodles; I’m drinking tea. We know the people of the Wu. Sometimes they let us park the jeep in front of the restaurant. They say, “We’ll keep an eye on it, we got you”, which is good because I park in illegal places all the time and owe so much money. The last time I called to challenge tickets, the New York City Treasury Department said, “We need to turn you over to a parking specialist.”
CARDS, CLEANING Our apartment doesn’t have a TV, so Costa and I are going to play card games. Right now it’s Quiddler, which I bought from that board game cafe in the West Village, the Uncommons, it’s all about buying something in a store rather than online. Then we sometimes stay until 2 am to redecorate the apartment. We love cleaning.
Sunday Routine readers can follow Leigh Altshuler’s pursuits on Instagram @sweetpicklebooks.