Tamara Shopsin and Life at the Store


We are shaped by our childhood experiences, and it is this universal truth that writer Tamara Shopsin chooses to explore in her new memoir, Arbitrary Stupid Goal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Set in Greenwich Village during the 1970s, where Shopsin grew up above her family’s grocery store-turned-diner, Arbitrary Stupid Goal is a nostalgic jump back in time to downtown New York’s bohemian heyday.

Still based in New York, Shopsin spends her weekends cooking with her brother and father at the family business. A graphic designer by day, her visuals have been featured in The New York Times and the New Yorker.  Her first memoir, Mumbai New York Scranton, came out in 2013 and chronicles a year she spent traveling and what happened when she returned home. She is also the designer of 5 Year Diary and co-author of the children’s book This Equals That.

SYDNEY RAPPIS: It’s difficult to fit this book into a classic memoir mold, between the way that it was written and the images included. How would you describe it?

TAMARA SHOPSIN: I guess I would literally say it’s about the block I grew up on and the restaurant that my family ran, and the characters and stories of the street. Then abstractly, it’s about this philosophy of life that my father taught me and my siblings—that’s the title of the book. Also, it’s really about New York and about documenting certain things that maybe don’t exist anymore, or are changing. It’s not mourning them; it’s trying to celebrate them or remember them.

RAPPIS: I loved the book. I think you get all of those points across in each little, poetic anecdote. You have such an interesting perspective on New York City, since you grew up there, but why did you chose to write about it in the little stories instead of illustrations?

SHOPSIN: I’m an illustrator, but I use a lot of different ways to illustrate. I will use pen and ink, I’ll use vector; sometimes I’ll use typography. I come from a graphic design background and for me, the idea of what it is is always the hardest thing to get, and what’s important. I’ll render that idea, and the idea dictates the form. If I’m doing an illustration, sometimes it will read funnier or faster in vector. Or sometimes, ink or a doodle will read faster and make it hit more. With these ideas, the way to express them was in book, memoir form. But also, this is something that grew and this is just where it ended up. It evolved into what it is, not to go back on what I just said.

RAPPIS: I’m interested in knowing more about you as a writer and a person. Where do you find time to write?

SHOPSIN: I’m always early. If I’m doing an illustration and there’s a deadline, I might do it a week early. When I have something, it’s like I have some weird invisible pressure and I just work on it. [While writing the book] I would wake up in the morning and shut myself in. The morning hour was golden for getting stuff done; I could clearly see things. Not answering emails or checking anything involving the internet when I first woke up was probably a ritual—I would try and set that time aside. I have a head where wheels are always turning; I’m not a person that can just relax. I’m not a chill person.

RAPPIS: Do you have any favorite writers, or anyone who influences you?

SHOPSIN: I don’t know that writers influence me. I mean, I love writers. I love Joseph Mitchell’s writings about New York. He’s amazing, and it’s just pure joy to read his Up in the Old Hotel. I haven’t read it in a while, but that’s definitely an influence. I’m really influenced by designers and visual thinkers, like Bruno Munari. I love Flannery O’Connor. While I was writing this I wasn’t really reading. I don’t really think the way I write is like other writers. There was a voice in my head that I was trying to match. It’s not like it just came out; it was really hard and it took a while, but that’s just what it became.

RAPPIS: When I was getting ready for the interview, I took time to look up the Shopsin’s menu online. It’s incredible.

SHOPSIN: I do not attempt to interfere with the menu or the graphic design. I taught my dad Xpress a long time ago. I set some ground rules, like no negative kerning, and he doesn’t follow them. At this point, I just think of it as, “This is his thing, just respect it.” I love it, but it’s got some issues. My Dad is a genius, I will say that.

RAPPIS: Do you have a favorite thing on the menu? Or a favorite thing to cook?

SHOPSIN: My favorite soup is Chicken Tortilla Avocado, and my favorite thing to cook changes. My dad is always putting new things on the menu—there’s always a new pancake, with stuff inside, like hot chili peppers. I like cooking in the kitchen when it’s really busy and the rhythm is good. My head is always thinking, but in the kitchen it shuts down. It’s muscle memory and there’s no space for me to think about an illustration or how to say the sentence I want to say or a cartoon. It’s a weird break, and that’s what I love. It’s really satisfying to cook with my brother and my dad at the store.

RAPPIS: Do you think food and family are more strongly connected for you than someone who didn’t grow up in a restaurant?

SHOPSIN: I don’t think it’s food and family, it’s the store, the restaurant my family runs. It’s the connector; the thing that we all care about most in the world. It’s like the world revolves around the store, and it’s a special thing my dad and mom made. My brothers and sisters love food and care about food, but it’s beyond food. It’s this nugget of New York that ties us together.

RAPPIS: One last thing: If you could change something about New York as it is right now, what would it be?

SHOPSIN: That’s hard because New York is always changing. But I would say some sort of rent stabilization laws for retail spaces for small businesses that have storefronts—restaurants, stationery stores, shoe stores that you just love are going out because the landlords are unchecked. If [landlords] had to pay for empty spaces or if there were any kind of regulations, that would help small businesses survive in New York, because so many of them are leaving. Midtown is still totally polka-dotted full of small, amazing businesses that will just make your heart soar, but the pay seems to be accelerating and it really worries me. If I could change anything about New York, it would be to regulate commercial retail and have some sort of a system for small businesses. That’s my gut reaction.