The New York Times real estate listing read, “An enchanting Swiss Chalet Penthouse Studio. Imagine waking up to the sweet aroma of Magnolia Bakery…”
Oh, great! A constant smell. Who wouldn’t want that?
The bakery meant little to me. After having spent three years trying to buy an apartment in Manhattan, I had all but given up. What I didn’t purchase in the beginning of my search was now completely out of reach. It was 2005 and I had been outbid, outdone and outwitted by the city’s juggernaut real estate market. Could I possibly make one more run at the co-op windmill?
Did I ever think it might be nice to have real bakery across the street? Was I ever that young, that naive, that smell challenged? Yet Biography Bookstore was just two stores over from the apartment in question, a huge plus– so how bad could it be?
But being true to any long-winded story, it was in the middle of August, a 4th floor walk-up with a dead air conditioner the size of an Easy-Bake Oven, which may have also been used for heat in the winter. This “penthouse” unit was truly up-in-the-rafters small. One doll house size wall comprised the kitchen with ancient cabinets half hanging on, half heading down, gravity bound. Splinters from the original oak floor pulled completely up as I walked across it; they stuck into the cuffs of my jeans like toothpicks on steroids. Built in 1860, badly remodeled in 1960. And did I mention it was a small fortune? Other than these silly details, it was perfect.
Ready for the clincher? The real estate listing finished with the words, “Estate to be sold “as is” within 48 hours. Best and final offer. A fast, clean deal.” Oh, sure.
If the realtor hadn’t liked me– I was on full schmooze– I wouldn’t have had a chance. Three offers were on the table, two were very close. The Seller asked the realtor who wanted the apartment the most? Good question!
Short story: I scored the property. Within days of the closing I was perched 4 floors up and 50 yards away from what I would learn to be one of the most famous culinary sweet-tooth haunts in all of New York City. But I still didn’t have a clue. My only view from the tiny top floor attic windows was the endless line of people standing outside Magnolia Bakery. Every day from mid afternoon to late into the evening, the faithful would arrive in pre-diabetic waves to pay their respects at $1.75 (back then) for a high caloric cupcake blessing.
Our Lady of Lourdes may have pray-answered stacks of obsolete crutches, but they were sorrily outnumbered by the thousands of empty Magnolia cupcake boxes which littered the street, overflowing the garbage cans of Bleecker Park, kitty corner to that sugar fix. My appetite was quick to be spade and/or neutered.
“Never Before Has So Much Meant So Little To So Few…”
Was I the last person on the planet to discover that Magnolia Bakery was a national obsession? When I told friends in other cities (name a city/any city) that I lived across from M.B. they knew my residence immediately; some knew my exact address–and that’s scary. Some could even identify the building: they knew the doorway, the cobblestones on the corner, the smell of burnt sugar. Yes, of course, they also loved Marc Jacobs, Kate Spade, Biography Bookstore, Ralph Lauren, Cynthia Rowley, blah, blah, blah.
This was odd. It wasn’t the infamous Dakota, the iconic 740 Park or the faux glitz of Trump Tower. It wasn’t even architecture which put this vintage slice of the West Village on the map. It was those frickin’ cupcakes.
Magnolia Bakery touted weekly sales of 20,000 cupcakes plus untold other treats. Realize then that on any given weekend thousands of people would descend upon this quaint intersection of Bleecker and 11th: tour buses saddling up on the 9th Avenue side of Bleecker Park, dispensing tourists like a pregnant guppy. In every weather imaginable the line would extend from the door of the bakery in numbers seldom fewer than 50, more often 100+. And though that line moved smoothly, it could remain intact for hours on end, like a favored ride at Disneyland. Or the King Tut tour of tooth decay.
“Famous for Fifteen Thousand Calories…”
Magnolia has morphed into the stuff of legend, famous for being famous. It has been parodied on Saturday Night Live (5 million downloads claims NBC) cementing its cult status like a clogged artery. A Magnolia cupcake with a single birthday candle makes a cameo appearance in the film “The Devil Wears Prada,” just part of the story line which coincidentally includes a $1,900 Marc Jacobs handbag, Magnolia’s neighbor to the north. Of course it was “Sex & The City” which helped turn the bakery into legend. By the time the “Sex & The City” movie franchise was released, those aging ingenues would be using buttercream as facial wraps. Or wheel chair lubricant.
“Never Forget Your First Time, Unless It Was Totally Forgettable…”
On my first visit to Magnolia Bakery, I made a massive cupcake faux pas by allowing two couples to cut ahead of me. Once inside they promptly self-helped themselves to 48 cupcakes (Um, Hello– The sign says: “Limit 1 Dozen Per Person”), emptying all the trays in one swift swoop. For quite some time no more cupcakes materialized from the back of the shop.
I must have looked disappointed. “Where are you from?” asks one of the husbands. “Just moved here from Chicago,” I forlornly respond. “Oh, that explains it,” he chuckles. “A New Yorker would never have let us cut in.” He pauses. “So what are you going to do now… Now that we’ve taken all the cupcakes?”
“Well”, I say slowly, “if we were in Chicago, I’d stuff your lifeless bodies into the trunk of your car and leave it at the airport. But since you’re true New Yorkers, lets use LaGuardia.”
They promptly put two cupcakes back on the tray.
“It’s Like Living Across the Street From Graceland… Without the Grace.”
The crowds that amass in the West Village are a respectable lot. The daytime throngs are well behaved, clean and happy to be making the scene. Often people stand across the street, cell phones in hand, forwarding digital pics of Magnolia Bakery’s Cracker Barrel-light exterior. Like the photo above depicts (taken from my tiny balcony, M.B.’s blue canopy to the right), there are often traffic jams from the constant parade of town cars and Uber-Lyfts. It is rather a forced destination. The upside, you can always get a cab.
“This is the place I told you about,” shouts a girl into a pink bejeweled phone shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. “This is where I am.”
Clearly Carrie Bradshaw should have been a Stepford Wife instead of her husband, Matthew Broderick. Like a Stepford-Bradshaw army, thousands of these young women are drawn to Magnolia Bakery like moths to polyester.
Not unpleasant, the corner of Bleecker & 11th usually has a street carnival feel. On any given afternoon an architectural walking tour maneuvers thru the unloading of a bus of Italian tourists while a “Major Motion Picture” is being shot down the street. There are also movie location tours which make this a regular stop. (They were court ordered not to be serving any non M.D. cupcakes on the bus!) Add to this the thousands of cupcake starved patrons and you have all of the ingredients for a sticky city gridlock.
“The Only Thing Better Than Nightfall is Day Fall…”
When darkness descends on Fridays and Saturdays a different kind of sweet decay comes out to prey. It’s a younger, Generation “Y Should I Give Crap?” attitude, fresh from the bars, buzzed and hungry. Sure there are cupcake scuffles– no frosting spilled, but many an angry disagreement will arise among young men when they’ve been over-served, over-sugared and only allowed to buy that lame-ass dozen.
No, “Last Call” at Magnolia has an odd culinary desperation as the patrons roll out onto the sidewalk, laughing, cursing, tossing empty cupcake boxes to the curb. Yet it’s hard to appear bad ass when you’re sucking your fingers.
“This is a True Story. I’m Not Telling It Again.”
It’s 2:00 AM. A jet black town car pulls up to the now darkened Magnolia B. A young woman jumps out, clearly inebriated, and begins pounding on the bakery’s door. “I’ll give you $20.00 for a cupcake,” she yells.
Inside, a young maintenance man with a bucket waives her off. “Come on! $25.00 then…” The man turns away. She begins kicking at the door. “OK, $50.00! I’ll give you $50.00 for one cupcake!” More unintelligible screaming. “OK, how ’bout I **** you for a cupcake (Insert carnal imagination here.)
The worker scampers to the back of the store and turns off all the lights. The hungry woman returns to her car, sobbing. To the driver she whines, “He won’t even sell me one cupcake…”
“Life Is Not About Frosting: It Only Covers Up What’s Underneath…”
The cupcake-crumb-eating pigeons in Bleecker Park are fat and rush about like public school children on a vending machine buzz. The poor park takes a regular beating from the crowds and their confection wrappers: the City barely keeps up. Still, nearby buildings routinely get ticketed for the trash that clutters the sidewalks, an unfair burden to the homeowners who try to keep this particular bedlam in order.
It’s as if your next door neighbor won the $100 Million Lotto… and you get to hose down his driveway. Not that M.B. doesn’t try to keep its corner tidy, it tries. But even they could not have predicted what fame would bring to this tiny intersection of 18th century streets and 21st century baked goods.
How many more years can this continue? Limit 1 Dozen, please.
UPDATE: Biography Bookstore was priced out if its old home. It was replaced by Book Marc, Jacob’s foray into reading. Of course, it’s a hit. Lots of oversized books with big pictures and ephemera kitsch; clearly he knows his market. Jimmy Choo opened nearby and shortly closed thereafter with but a sneeze. Michael Kors opened… and Ralph Lauren closed. Coach closed two stores. Christofle Silver opened a dazzling little jewel box. Bleecker Street has evolved into the most expensive game of musical retail chairs ever played. Per square foot, the area has surpassed even the rental rates of Rodeo Drive. (see Wall Street Journal, then turn away.)
And Magnolia Bakery? Their signature Bleecker store is as crazy/busy as ever. They now have countless locations across the city and throughout country.
“Can I **** you for a cupcake?” I think you already have.
By Duane Scott Cerny. Copyright 2016