Interior Design

An N.Y.C. Apartment That's Truly a Book Lover's Paradise

May 11, 2018

Welcome to My Life at Home, where we slow down for just a minute to share a glimpse into the lives of food lovers we'd love to get to know better. Kick off your shoes and get comfy!

Hello, CB! Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

In this digital age where books are read on e-readers and news consumed via alerts, it's a real luxury to sit and get lost in an actual bound hardcover, or leisurely make your way through the pages of the Sunday paper. That's why we knew we found a kindred spirit in CB Owens, a true bibliophile after our own heart.

CB is a food and travel editor, with experience across magazine titles like Food & Wine, Lucky Peach, and Travel + Leisure, among others. He also happens to be a good friend of Food52, having edited six of our cookbooks. Oh, and did we mention he's a foreign language sponge, speaking five languages (outside of his native English) at conversation-level or above. "I was a linguistics major for a while before I switched to French literature," he explains. "And then just for fun on my own I've studied bits and pieces of dozens and dozens of languages." Dozens and dozens of languages! What can we say: He loves to love words.

One thing we've noticed about the soft-spoken Southerner—aside from his eagle-eye exactitude when it comes to our copy, of course—is that he is a modern-day Renaissance man. When he's not parsing sentences this way and that, you can find him working on his master's degree at NYU in food studies, launching his very own calligraphy/hand lettering/print studio (Waverly House Press, coming soon!), casually brushing up on all of those languages, or studying to become a licensed New York City tour guide. ("The test is crazy! You basically just have to know everything that happened in all five boroughs between 1624 and now.")

An example of CB's elegant handiwork. Photo by CB Owens

We caught up with CB in his book lovers' paradise of a home in New York's Greenwich Village, where he also happened to teach us the world's fastest elegant dish to throw together when last-minute guests are already on their way.

HANA ASBRINK: Tell us where you're from, and how long you've called this place home.

CB OWENS: I am a 10th-generation Southerner, but I got the heck out of Dodge and moved to the Village for school the minute I turned 18, in 2003. I bought this apartment about four years ago, and my co-op is actually right across the street from my freshman dorm. So these few square blocks have felt like home to me since I was a teenager.

HA: Describe your decorating style. What are you influenced by?

CBO: I’m an editor by trade, and I’ll go after a manuscript like Edward Scissorhands, no sweat. But when it comes to my home décor, I just can’t seem to pare it down. I guess you’d say I’m a maximalist. My style is most influenced by printed matter, as you can see—I like to say this is the books’ apartment, and they just let me live here.

A book lover's paradise. Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

HA: What's your organizing style? Thoughts on clutter?

CBO: I grew up in the kind of house with an alphabetized spice rack. I didn’t even know what clutter was, because nothing was ever once out of place. But in my own home, I definitely walk that fine line between collector and Hoarding: Buried Alive. Some print aficionados arrange their lot by size or subject or author—way too fussy for me. I embrace the chaos!

HA: Tell us about your very impressive book and magazine collection.

CBO: I started collecting as soon as I learned to read, so ever since the late ’80s. (Shout-out to Dog Goes to Nursery School, my very first book!) On my shelves you’ll find wacky little zines that cost a buck mixed in with rare first-edition cookbooks that set me back a whole paycheck. I dig all of it.

CB is 6'2", but still can't reach the top shelf of his bookcase (he'd eventually love to install a library ladder). Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

HA: I love your wall of books! Are these custom bookcases?

CBO: Custom, ha! These are cheapo particle-board bookcases from IKEA with extension shelves on top, which I picked up on Craigslist for a song. They’re barely holding together at this point, but I see no reason to upgrade them. They’ve moved with me many times, and I suppose I’m sentimental.

The coziest reading nook awaits! Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk
I like to say this is the books’ apartment, and they just let me live here.

HA: What are the three books you're grabbing if you're headed to a desert island?

CBO: Only three?! Are you nuts? This question feels cruel and unusual. But if you’re twisting my arm, it would probably be Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and Finnish for Beginners. (I dunno, I’d just like to learn it, and I’ll have plenty of time on the island.)

"On the same shelf as the mini Coke bottles (near the bottom left corner), there's a prime number generator. When you press that red button, the numbers spin and shuffle forward to the next prime number. It's so pointless, but I treasure it." Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

HA: What are your hobbies? How do you manage to pay homage to all these interests in such an orderly, thoughtful way?

CBO: My greatest love is making stuff out of paper and ink. Calligraphy, zines, origami, linocut prints, gouache illustrations—you name it. My art supplies used to be scattered ev-er-y-where until I got my WorkBox 3.0 storage unit. The blood, sweat, and tears of assembly were worth it. Now I always know exactly where to find vellum envelopes or fluorescent paint markers or whatever else I suddenly have the urge to create with.

"That storage unit is called the WorkBox 3.0, and it's where all my calligraphy and art supplies are stored and organized. It also folds up neatly into what looks like an armoire." Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

I was also quite a serious musician as a youngster, did the whole competition circuit and won my share of trophies (embarrassing ’90s confession: my first AIM screenname was Pianoboy57). I no longer compete or perform, but I still love to play for myself every day, and I keep a corner of the apartment carved out for my keyboard and stacks of sheet music.

"My piano, which I still play every day. Those stairs lead up to the loft, which I use as storage now." Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

HA: Something you hate-to-love or love-to-hate about your home?

CBO: Well, let’s just say there’s a reason I didn’t show you any photos of my bathroom. It looks like it hasn’t been renovated since the building first went up, in ’91…1891. But I’ve done what I can to spruce it up: vintage anatomical models, fancy candies, Czech street signs, etc.

HA: I know you're so busy juggling school and work (and life!). What systems or rituals do you have in place to keep the trains running?

CBO: I basically keep my entire life organized within a single Google Drive spreadsheet called “The Big Salad” (because it has a little bit of everything in it, and I’m a diehard Seinfeld fan). It’s where I have my daily to-dos, my calendar, grocery list, ongoing projects, trackers for my editorial clients, accounting records, long-term goals, positive affirmations, everything. If I ever accidentally delete it, I’m finished.

HA: What do you like to do to gear up for the week ahead?

CBO: When I went freelance a few months ago, I didn’t realize that the distinction between weekday and weekend would totally vanish. The barista at Stumptown will say “TGIF, right?” And I’m like, Huh? I thought it was Tuesday. So the concept of “week ahead” doesn’t mean much anymore; when you work for yourself, the time is always now!

But to unwind and recharge, I watch ASMR videos on YouTube every night. My favorite ASMRtist (as they're called, lol) is Gentle Whispering. And some of my favorite videos show her tapping on fancy greeting cards and cooking things. It's kind of goofy, but I love it. And ASMR has completely cured my insomnia!

HA: Where will we find you on any given weeknight?

CBO: Once the thermometer cracks 60ºF, I’m out bouncing all over my neighborhood, especially up and down the Hudson River Greenway. I power-walk there almost every evening at sunset. And I live about 100 paces from Washington Square Park, so I’m often there reading or listening to my favorite jazz combo or sneaking into the dog run come summer, when most of the 50,000 NYU students disperse and I practically have the place to myself.

HA: How often do you entertain?

CBO: I entertain weekly, though it’s usually quite casual, just close pals coming by for trashy TV. Sometimes I cook for them, but just as often I find I don’t need to. I always keep good cheese and charcuterie in the fridge, plus local beer. Not exactly a banquet, but everyone leaves happy!

"I used to have a gazillion and one kitchen tools and gadgets piled all over the place, but I recently realized I was using the same ones over and over. So I donated most of them, put some of them up in storage, and installed a magnetic bar to hold the ones I actually use on a daily basis." Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

HA: Do you have a signature drink or dinner party fare?

CBO: For dinner parties, I invariably cook the dishes I grew up eating—nothing too fancy, but crowd-pleasers all the same. For my best friend’s birthday next week, I’m planning a menu of fried chicken, braised-forever collards with pepper vinegar, funeral mac and cheese, and pound cake with sugared blackberries (plus a secret ingredient which I’d never reveal okay fine I’ll tell you: fiori di Sicilia extract.

"I can't believe I'm revealing my baking secret weapons (Vietnamese cinnamon and fiori di Sicilia extract!)" Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

HA: What's on your playlist right now?

CBO: Bach fugues, big brassy salsa, late-’90s top 40, and Kehlani. All the Kehlani!

HA: Favorite Food52 recipes?

CBO: Such an obvious answer, but it’s super popular for a reason: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion & Butter is truly best-in-class. I can’t believe she discarded her onion at the end, though—I pick mine out of the sauce with my bare fingers and scarf it down, still steaming, right there at the stove. Cook’s treat!

HA: What do you always keep in your fridge?

CBO: Smoked salmon, Worcestershire sauce, and Christine Ferber jams (which tend to disappear within a week, midnight spoonful by midnight spoonful). Oh and always plain skyr: I eat it like regular yogurt, but it can also be doctored to stand in for milk, buttermilk, crème fraîche, sour cream, farmer’s cheese, whipped cream—whatever I need it to be. Really saves space on the dairy shelf!

HA: What are you cooking for yourself these days?

CBO: Right now I’m burning through a fat bundle of asparagus about every other day. I like to slap some spears down on store-bought puff pastry smeared with ricotta (or that trusty skyr). Then the dough gets egg-washed and baked in a hot oven for 20ish minutes. Right now, the star is asparagus, but soon it'll be sweet versions with greenmarket strawberries or stone fruit, then squash and zucchini and friends, then tomatoes and herbs...and so it goes! It looks fancy enough for company but comes together in 25 minutes flat, fridge to mouth.

HA: Okay, we can't finish without finding out what CB stands for!

CBO: CB stands for Christopher-Blake, which I hear nowadays only if I've tested my mom to her limits. CB was my grandfather's name, too, but nobody called me that until I was a freshman in college. My very first professor suggested it during roll-call when I said I hated "Chris" but would be open to other nicknames. And I've been CB ever since! (Except at Starbucks, where I'm Seebee, Sibi, Stevie...)

Thank you, CB! (BTW, the edge of Washington Square Park is just behind him, about 100 paces back.) Photo by City Love Photography / Alexis Buryk

What's your guests-are-coming-in-a-jiffy-what-should-I-feed-them miracle dish? Share your version of CB's elegant asparagus tart below!

31 Comments

Julie K. June 17, 2018
Also a book madperson, and your shelves, CB, look not unlike mine. But one special non-book thing of yours caught my eye, and I must know: where can I get my own push-button prime number generator???
 
CB O. July 2, 2018
Thanks, Julie! The machine is called "Primer" and it was designed by Karl Lautman. I'm happy to see they're still available for purchase, and you can pick one up here: karllautman.com/primer.html. I absolutely love mine!
 
Julie K. July 2, 2018
Lovely; thanks so much! Just instantly appealing!
 
sheli June 7, 2018
I love seeing that I am not the only book-lover left. My 'addiction' is cookbooks and magazines. When a pipe burst in my ceiling a few years ago, I lost over 600 books (over $16,000 - gulp), but still have a few thousand left. Wall of bookshelves in my dining room, and bookcases on any open-space wall. I love them all - they're like old friends.
 
kathleen B. June 6, 2018
My great uncle was a publisher and my fondest memory of him was walking into the house that was wall to wall books in almost every room. thanks for bringing back that memory for me!<br />
 
Nathalie May 22, 2018
Je suis en amour <br />with your books and deco 😍💕 Wowzers !<br />You have done “magnifique” bookshelves !! I am a collector as well ( french and english books ) and also have Ikea but my library looks great ! The little added items on bookshelves are the key and adds “a je ne sais quoi” to a room..<br />À la prochaine 🌺📚<br />
 
verborgenheit May 20, 2018
What an inspiring and funny article- thank you!
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
No, thank YOU for checking it out!
 
Arthur J. May 20, 2018
Collecting books is a "gentle madness". Enjoy!
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
The perfect way to describe it!
 
lefty303 May 20, 2018
Saw the title "...Book Lover's Paradise" and I was hooked! I own an Inn and live in the hayloft of the Carriage House. You INSPIRE ME since it has great bookshelves and I"m not being creative enough with them. If you ever get to Ithaca NY, we hope you'll be our guest!
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
That sounds awesome! Which property is it, the Carriage House Café? I'd love to check it out
 
tamater S. May 20, 2018
So much fun to read - I'd love to hang out with that guy at least once a month, I think, and now I have to 'follow' Hana. Bookmarking interview to read & enjoy pics again .
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
Only once a month?? Haha, thanks a bunch! :)
 
Komala May 20, 2018
I have a studio in Chicago that is mostly books and collections of old Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines. Would love the book shelf setup like you!
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
I'm also a huge Hitchcock fan!
 
Komala May 20, 2018
Got them from used book sales at IU Northwest in Gary- one of my alma mater. Don't get me started on my collection of weird and first editions and pulp novels. James Baldwin wrote a trashy Nior book about a "loose" woman who leads some poor guy astray. Can't read it as it might break the spine and crack the cover.📚📖
 
Dawn D. May 20, 2018
My son and girlfriend are moving soon...your book shelf wall is a piece of art. I am forwarding this article to them for inspo. I can't wait to try my hand at your quick recipe for guests with puff pastry. My current go to is Italian bread toast smeared with ricotta and then a smear of fig jam, yum!
 
Dawn D. May 20, 2018
PS I forgot to mention a quick recipe idea I picked up for parties a few years ago. Puff pastry smeared with herbed soft cheese, a layer of prosciutto and then cut into strips and wrapped around the asparagus spear. Baked and the placed on a tray to serve. It was always a hit with my guests.
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
Mmmm, those both sound delicious! I will be trying both of those, thank you
 
Arthur J. May 20, 2018
I loved this article. I am a book lover myself (too many cookbooks?). I also have great interest in language and "food" (especially oysters!). Wash SQ is so cool. My Dream: live in the Bowery Hotel. (for at least a wk). CB is living my dream. A kindred spirit. I just hope his friends don't insist on CB making biscuits every time. Southern Heritage! I know that too! lol
 
CB O. May 20, 2018
Thank you, sir, so glad you enjoyed it!
 
M May 15, 2018
Didn't he get the memo about turning your book spines inwards? Who needs to ever grab a book after its been shelved?<br /><br />In all seriousness, A+ bookshelves. One ladder away from my dream. Jam-packed, but organized and visually interesting.<br /><br />I'd love to see more clean, but non-minimalist design posts.
 
CB O. May 15, 2018
Thank you! That ladder is my dream, too. Sigh...
 
Eric K. May 13, 2018
And I thought *I* had books. Loved this tour, CB; truly a paradise.
 
CB O. May 13, 2018
Thanks, Eric! The Food52 gang should come by for a drink!
 
beejay45 May 11, 2018
The interview portion of this article surprised an almost immediate laugh from me. The interviewer's initials when read following a response from CB seemed like an incredulous editorial comment. Perhaps I find it so funny because of my own experience. What can I say, when your4 initials are "BS," issues inevitably arise. Ahem. I also enjoyed a look into another mind that has too many interests to settle on one. I think it's great, and it's also great to see you do so well at it.
 
CB O. May 12, 2018
HA!
 
snuffcurry May 11, 2018
Interesting to see how this apartment has changed since Owens's Apartment Therapy coverage in 2013.
 
stefanie May 11, 2018
Is it the same apartment? Either way, I loved Owen's decor aesthetic then and I still love it now!
 
CB O. May 12, 2018
Wow, I can't believe you two remember my Apartment Therapy tour—that was five years ago! This is a different place, but laid out similarly. Thanks for checking out my tours, both times!