Kenny Shopsin, the store's proprietor (and Tamara's father) is a character straight out of a Daniel Pinkwater novel: acerbic, giant-hearted, crass, hilarious, opinionated, rude, talented, and odd-shaped. When I've eaten at his restaurant (something I do every chance I get), I've watched him with cobra-mongoose fascination, never sure if I'm the cobra or the mongoose in that situation — an out-of-towner getting kicks watching this oddball prepare even odder dishes; the butt of a joke that might go off at any second, fermented in the large belly of this larger-than-life man.
(One of the best meals I ever ate at Shopsin's was when I had lunch at the counter with an editor and we spent the whole time talking about our favorite Pinkwater books while being served food that could have sprung off the page of a novel like Fat Men From Space.)
Tamara is one of the large brood of acerbic, bright, accomplished and odd-shaped Shopsin children who grew up in the store, worked in it, ran semi-feral in it. Her brother, Charlie, is the proprietor of the essential (and now seemingly defunct) Modern Mechanix website and is a happy mutant of enormous standing.
In her memoir — composed of short vignettes, strung together with lots of white space, interspersed with her expressive and deceptively simple line-drawings — Tamara Shopsin tells the story of her extraordinary childhood on Mercer Street, the original home of Shopsin's, and of her father and mother's odd journey, and the extraordinary circle of marginal, weird, funny, big-hearted, mean, crude, crooked, trustworthy, honorable people who rotated in and out of the store. The odd ducks of Mercer Street were given keys to the store, they'd let themselves in and graze and leave money behind, or fall asleep in the rocking chair. John Belushi would go on coke benders, get thrown out of the house by his wife, and conk out at Shopsin's.
Shopsin's story revolves around her father, whose declining health and mental acuity are heartbreakingly depicted — and Willy, her father's best friend and mentor, whom she cared for at the end of his life, as Mercer Street changed forever. These two larger-than-life characters are the avatars for a different, pre-financialized New York, a lost world where family and art and laughter and craft were more important than mere money, when weirdos could flourish in the cracks and make cities into vibrant and surprising places.
Their stories — dirty, funny, criminal, delicious — are a reminder of something we've lost in living memory: a moment before the orderliness of long supply chains and complex financial derivatives squeezed the handmade and odd out of the world. They're the tea-leaves that brewed Make: magazine and the maker movement, avatars of indie-rock and indie culture.
Tamara Shopsin tells us their stories from origin to today, one dead, the other ailing, and uses them as a small, high-torque gear that meshes with the huge gear of New York City, so they spin around and around until we're given one full revolution of New York, seeing it from all angles at it is embalmed with money, all slack driven out by the market logic that says rich people are right because they're rich and rich because they're right.
Shopsin's is still there — in a new location, not far away — and you can even cook like Kenny Shopsin by referring to the outstanding, funny, profane 2008 cook-book: Eat Me.
But the city that incubated Shopsin's and gave it its meaning is gone, and Tamara Shopsin's sweet, funny, sad memoir leaves no doubt about what we've lost.
Arbitrary Stupid Goal [Tamara Shopsin/Farrar Strauss Giroux]