An ode to culinary bookstores.

My son and I spent the last few days in San Francisco, that gastronomic paradise, because I had a couple of book readings and a companion ticket burning a hole in my pocket.  What a splendid town for a pair of adventurous eaters!  We stuffed ourselves with tacos and dim sum and Bi-Rite ice cream, sushi and banh mi and fine little pastries.

OmnivoreBut one of the non-comestible highlights of our trip had to be our visit to Omnivore Books, in the Noe Valley district. (If you haven't had the chance to go, be sure to put it on your list.) Housed in a single room, Omnivore is the "clean, well-lighted place" we all seek in a bookstore.  From floor to ceiling, and on sturdy tables in the middle of the room: cookbooks.  It's a bit like the overflowing room in most of our houses where the cookbooks live, only cleaner (cleaner than mine, anyway) and perhaps a bit better organized and up-to-date.  At mid-day on a Saturday, customers roamed the little room like treasure hunters.

I have this well-documented belief that cookbooks endure as physical artifacts even in a digital world.  And I think a culinary bookstore speaks to that special status.  We see and handle cookbooks more than the other books we own, and we have a longing to touch and handle them before we buy them.  How else are we going to know if it's going to be a keeper?  How else will we know if it's useful, thoughtful, and new?

Well, yes, there are cookbook communities like this one, and cookbook reviewers like me.  We can offer each other guidance, recommendations, a few tips for navigating the vast sea of published cookbooks.  And yes, it's sometimes convenient to take those recommendations and then buy online, especially during the holidays.  But a cook's relationship with a cookbook is so personal, so intimate, that a face-to-face introduction in a bricks-and-mortar store is never wasted.

According to Celia Sack, Omnivore's owner, there are only eight culinary bookstores in America.  Only eight!  That's not nearly enough of these havens of tranquillity and shared interest.  Yet I suppose it's more than many other specialties can boast; I mean, how many knitting bookstores have you heard of?  How many fishing bookstores? or gardening bookstores?  So, if you live in Portland, San Francisco, New York,  Las Vegas, Charleston, or New Orleans, consider yourself lucky.  And if you don't, and your cookbook obsession is starting to outgrow the confines of your living space....have you ever considered becoming a small business owner?

11 Comments

  • Jane  on  1/17/2012 at 11:14 AM

    I'm also a big fan of culinary bookstores though it's very dangerous for me. In London I used to live close to Books for Cooks and I had to ration my visits. On EYB we do plan to add a list of all culinary bookstores around the world and ideally we would like to find a way to link to them for cookbook sales. Watch this space!

  • Kitty Morse  on  1/18/2012 at 11:12 AM

    Omnivore is a treasure trove! And so is Kitchen Arts and Letters. Can't wait to see your list of stores. Merci!

  • Dana B  on  1/18/2012 at 12:34 PM

    I'll have to tell my brother about Omnivore. I would love a cookbook store. Talk about heaven! :) Alas, I live in Salem, OR and with Powell's in Portland, it's not really a viable market.

  • BettyC  on  1/18/2012 at 3:41 PM

    I'm with Jane, it's a dangerous thing! To add to the danger, Rabelais, a culinary bookstore in Portland, Maine has just moved to Biddeford, Maine in a much larger space and will be opening in March or April. I may need to be restrained...

  • Melanie  on  1/18/2012 at 8:03 PM

    Jane, that would have been dangerous (and fun) living near Books for Cooks in London! I visited the store on my last trip to the UK and brought home some lovely books that they had published, filled with their favourite recipes from their store/cafe. In Melbourne we have our own beautiful Books for Cooks. No cafe but luckily there are lots of lovely eateries on the same street to hit after building up hunger pangs in the bookstore.

  • Jane  on  1/20/2012 at 1:07 AM

    Melanie - I've got the first three of those Books for Cooks compilations but I didn't keep up my collection after I moved to the USA. I wish I had as they are great books. What number are they up to now?

  • Adrienne  on  1/20/2012 at 2:38 PM

    ... Or Toronto! The Cookbook Store is wonderful!

  • Melanie  on  1/23/2012 at 1:46 AM

    Hi Jane, I have a feeling they are up to about book 8-10 or somewhere around there. I actually bought compilations of compilations which was a bit strange! I have a copy of "the best of 1,2,3" and the "best of 4,5,6". They have been a great way of introducing myself to lots of new and old cookbook authors.

  • Clare  on  1/28/2012 at 6:28 PM

    Don't tempt me Susie, My dream is to open a culinary bookstore with a kitchen attached- inspired by Books for Cooks in London of course. However, Melbourne is already dominated by our own Book for Cooks which is a treausre trove and I'm not sure where else in Australia has the market- may a move to the US is in order!

  • Vanessa  on  2/10/2012 at 7:22 AM

    We have a cookbook store here in Charleston (Heirloom Book Company). I spent a lovely afternoon on their sofa looking at the Alinea cookbook. I wouldn't call them a treasure trove (the stock is too skimpy), though they do have lots of older books that must be very appealing to someone. However, if you are ever in Charleston, they are certainly worth a visit.

  • Kelly  on  3/14/2012 at 9:21 AM

    Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that Rabelais is moving, BettyC! My daughters and I have a tradition now of going up to Portland in the spring and late summer. It's Maine, so we really should stay near a beach, but no, we have always set up camp at the Residence Inn which is curiously steps away from Rabelais. Or was! I'm sure I'll love the new store, but I'll miss the shop in downtown Portland.

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