How Sweet Pickle Books keeps the Lower East Side’s legacy alive
Selling “used books, new pickles,” Leigh Altshuler’s one-woman shop pays homage to the history of the Lower East Side.
Apr 12, 2021
Sweet Pickle Books, located at 47 Orchard St., is a place where you can buy secondhand copies of psychology texts, celebrity biographies and classics like “Little Women.” It’s a place where you can find zines made by local artists alongside stolen library books and cassettes (“Remember those?” the sign asks). It’s a shop with a disco ball. Oh, and it sells two-pound jars of pickles.
While the economic stress of the pandemic forced many small businesses to close, it also inspired owner Leigh Altshuler to create the shop of her dreams. After losing her job, she had time to reflect on where to go next.
“I was just thinking about, you know, how do I want to be spending my time? What do I really believe in?” she said. “And as things were closing, and liquor stores were essential but bookstores were shutting, I was just thinking about the importance of a bookstore, and especially a local bookstore.”
According to Altshuler, the role of a bookstore is irreplaceable.
“It’s a place where you can go when you don’t know what you’re looking for. But you’re looking for something. It’s a safe space to be curious. It’s a place where there’s no judgment,” she said.
For Altshuler, that place was Mercer Street Books. She was there on the day that New York City bookstores were ordered to close, buying as many books as she could carry and checking out right before time ran out.
One of the books Altshuler found that day was Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” After reading it in one sitting, she became determined to realize her dream of opening a shop.
“That’s what really made me think, I want to become who I want to become,” she said. “And this is a part of me that I really needed to do … I really needed this just as much as people needed a bookstore in a community, you know, so it was totally symbiotic.”
As a former Strand employee, Altshuler had experience buying books, but she did not know how to start a business. When she passed by the ever-growing number of empty storefronts, she called the numbers on the for-rent signs to inquire about the properties. She encountered an additional challenge due to the pandemic: researching the city’s ever-changing COVID-19 safety guidelines for businesses.
“I felt like it was really hard to find the information that the city was putting out there to make sure you could operate your business safely,” she said. “I was going into it, like, blind and then blindfolded.”
Sweet Pickle Books opened its doors in November 2020, after New Yorkers had lived in isolation for eight months. Though independent bookstores naturally serve their community, Altshuler turned her shop into a service for her community’s needs. When Altshuler purchased books around the Lower East Side, she became a much-needed friend to the elderly folks she visited.
“I was going into, you know, [the homes of] people who are in their 80s and 90s and buying books from them, and really seeing people who truly had not seen anybody in a long time,” she said. “So yes, it was great because I was getting inventory and I was, you know, buying whatever. But I was also making these connections with people who really make New York what it is.”
Altshuler also supported small businesses during the economic crisis, from carpenters building shelves to designers helping with the store’s branding. She even made a point of paying unemployed and homeless people to help her move boxes.
“Mutual aid has been amazing, because it’s like, those 25 or 50 dollars or whatever that’s going back into the community is going to go so much further,” she said.
Sweet Pickle Books doesn’t just have the present Lower East Side in mind — it also honors the community’s history. As a used bookstore and pickle vendor, it continues the legacy of early 20th-century Manhattan.
Greenwich Village served as New York’s literary center 100 years ago. Altshuler explained that in the 1920s, the area between Astor Place and Union Square used to be known as Book Row, due to the large amount of used bookstores and publishing houses in the area.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was heavily populated by Jewish immigrants who sold pickles. There were about 3,000 pickle vendors in New York by 1900, but now Altshuler’s store and The Pickle Guys are some of the only ones left.
Altshuler is Jewish, and many of her family members immigrated to the Lower East Side. Between her heritage and all the times she watched Crossing Delancey with her mom growing up, the intersection of books and pickles seemed like a natural way to honor the history of the neighborhood.
“That was a big part of my culture and my history, my relatives, and so that was something that I really wanted to pay homage to because I feel like I’m so lucky to have my store here,” she said. “I’m such a guest in this neighborhood. And it wouldn’t have been what it is without all of those people who, you know, sat on the street and sold pickles and all of the upholsterers who’ve been here for so many years and all these old businesses.”
Altshuler took this pickling legacy into her own hands by creating her own recipes for the store. She currently sells two types of pickles, original dill and spicy farmhouse. She researched the ingredients, sourced cucumbers from an ethical farm upstate, and conducted countless taste tests in her apartment kitchen to achieve the perfect crunch.
“I truly couldn’t have had more salt and vinegar in my body at all times,” she said.
Firmly rooted in the Lower East Side’s past and present, Sweet Pickle Books’ future will continue to revolve around the community, something highly important to Altshuler.
In the future, Altshuler said she might expand her one-woman operation. For now, she is hard at work maintaining the magical space that is Sweet Pickle Books.
“It’s definitely a labor of love, and it’s very laborious,” she said. “Books are really heavy.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 12, 2021 e-print edition. Email Sabrina Choudhary at [email protected]