When Leigh Altshuler lost her job in the marketing department of the McKittrick Hotel — known for its production of Sleep No More — at the beginning of the pandemic, she found herself in a bit of a pickle.
At first, while quarantining alone with no roommates, she turned to reading as refuge with more free time on her hands. But as COVID-19 continued to ravage the entertainment industry, she stopped hoping that her job might return. She instead took a leap of faith to open her first business: Sweet Pickle Books, which opened on the Lower East Side in November.
In an era in which book stores continue to shutter across the city — even the beloved food world favorite Kitchen Arts & Letters turned to GoFundMe for survival — Altshuler’s Sweet Pickle Books, located at 47 Orchard Street, is taking a risk on printed matter. It’s not a gamble without tasty rewards. As the business name suggests, the shop indeed sells pickles: in custom versions made exclusively for the shop.
“People are always like, ‘pickles and books...what?’” says Altshuler. But, in fact, the combination of goods is not so random, after all.
Growing up, Altshuler’s mother loved the 1988 film Crossing Delancey, a story about a bookseller that gets set up with a Lower East Side pickle shop owner. Sweet Pickle Books was a way to give thanks to her mother for encouraging her to be a voracious reader and a pickle-lover.
She hopes her pickles can continue the long legacy of pickling spots in the neighborhood. Altshuler adds: “Pickling was a huge part of why immigrants were able to come to this neighborhood and get jobs here, supporting their families. I want to pay homage to that history.”
In quarantine, Altshuler began obsessively testing out pickling recipes, quickly realizing that in order to make enough jars she’d need professional back up. The resulting products are a collaboration with a Texas-based farm with whom she developed the final recipes (Sweet Pickle Books is the only place they are sold). They bottle the pickled cukes grown on their farm, and send them out to New Jersey, where she picks them up en mass quantities. There are two versions available: dill pickles and a spicy version made hot with jalapeños. It is perhaps the only bookstore in New York that has its own custom line of pickles.
Her pickles are available both in-store or online, priced at $12.95 for a 32-ounce jar. Altshuler is already considering expanding the types of pickled goods on sale, including beets and sauerkraut.
Though other book shops in New York City carry edible items — the Greenpoint cookbook shop Archestratus with it’s Sicilian-leaning cafe and Crown Heights’s Cafe Con Libros with its in-store coffee bar — none have such a singular focus. The pickle theme carries throughout the shop with vintage mugs, select books, tote bags, and more.
Altshuler is no stranger to the bookselling world, having worked for several years as a communications director at the Strand bookstore. With Sweet Pickle Books, she sells a selection of used books that range in niche topics like “psychedelics” and “books you lied about reading” to “the history of interesting things,” among others. The used bookstore offers a rare opportunity for serendipitous entertainment, she says, especially during these strange socially distanced times and winter around the corner.
“What’s so special about used books is that they have their own story, there are all these treasures found in books — lines that are highlighted, receipts for a cup of coffee at the time that are being used as a bookmark,” she says. “You can learn so much about New York’s and New Yorkers’ pasts.”
Of course, there’s also a robust vintage cooking section that Altshuler says are likely her best sellers. Recently, for example, one customer requested a specific old Betty Crocker cookbook, claiming they wanted the version because its recipes allegedly had more butter than more recent editions. She hopes to become known for oddball requests like this and more.
“I want everyone to feel comfortable here, that it’s approachable and fun,” she says, conveyed even with the hanging disco ball.
Beyond the books and pickles, Altshuler also hopes that Sweet Pickle Books can support other small businesses. Recently, she hosted a vintage glassware pop-up from Jillian Tuttle (a former nightlife manager at Undercote, the bar below Cote steakhouse) and hopes to hold more soon.
Sweet Pickle Books, according to its website, is open most days except Mondays. It is generally open 1 to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, but the current day’s hours are posted daily on Instagram.