Cookbook store profile: Featuring Books for Cooks

Tim White

Photo of Tim White at Books for Cooks by Lucy Miller
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Last month we began to offer a new EYB feature highlighting independent cookbook stores. Now you can discover (or get reacquainted with) a store near your home - or plan a new target destination when you travel.

And to make this as strong a feature as we can, we're asking our members to help us. We already know of many great stores, which we keep an ongoing list of  (you can view them here), but we'd love to learn about more - especially those treasured by our members. So please share the names of independent cookbook stores that you know, love, admire, or are just plain crazy about. Add a comment to this posting, or email us at info@eatyourbooks.com with the name, address, and owner (if you know it). We'll do the rest.

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This month we're visiting with Tim White who, along with his wife Amanda, are owners of Books for Cooks, located at 233 Gertrude St. Fitzroy,  Australia (suburb of Melbourne). Books for Cooks is Australia's only retail store specializing exclusively in new and old books about wine, food, and the culinary arts. We asked Tim some questions about what makes Books for Cooks a special place (he also wanted us to note that Melbourne is a great food city :

EYB: In these days with the domination of online stores for book sales, what drove you to create an independent store, specializing in cookbooks?

We became booksellers after decades of being book lovers and cookbook collectors. In April 2000 we answered a one-line ad in the newspaper - 'Cookbook shop for Sale.'  An hour later, with a very sore credit card, we had 'jumped the fence' and become booksellers; a business we are still learning.  We often joke that we have the worst business plan but the best job in the world. Amanda had been working in catering for about 4 years when we opened Books for Cooks and moving from a kitchen to a bookshop was a catalyst for starting our family. After several years Tim managed to escape his career as a lawyer and work full time in the business also which means we get to work together every day.

Books, and particularly food books, have always been a deep and abiding interest for us; but deep down we are both food lovers and cooks first - our honeymoon was going to a cooking school. Amanda has a deep love of baking; Tim of peasant food and wine. We love being able to talk about wine, food, cooking, restaurants, etc. all day, every day. We both worked in hospitality whilst studying and we both love to cook. As such, being able to talk, read, and learn about wine, food, and cooking every day with our customers, chefs, cooks, farmers, restaurateurs is a dream come true. 

EYB: Why do the customers in your store prefer to come to Books for Cooks?

We'd like to think that it is because of our range, knowledge, and eclectic curated collection. We're not good at stocking up populist titles; but we love obscure serious books. We actually have about 190 categories in store - even books on cannibalism - although thankfully there are neither many of them nor much interest.

Over the years we have grown from about 8,000 books to now over 40,000 food- and wine-related books; in almost any genre you can think of. Whilst the bulk are traditional cookbooks, we also have sizable shelvings of books on food history, food writing, food photography, food politics, food sociology, food poetry, etc. About 40 percent of our stock is out of print or antiquarian. Our oldest book is from the 1780s and our most recent will be published next week. We import books from around the world and have an eclectic very personal collection. 

Many of our regular customers have now become friends and we love chatting to them about the recipes we are making from our books as often as possible.  

EYB: Do you specialize in any particular areas of cookbooks?

We're fairly omnivorous; we'll stock any good book on food or cooking. Tim does have a strong interest in wine and history, and Amanda's baking preference  is often catered for.  We also love considering the book as an object in itself, and so often have multiple editions in store - hardcover, first edition, signed copies, etc.  

EYB: What are the big sellers at Books for Cooks?

Over the past 2 years Yotam Ottolenghi's books have been our best sellers by a long way; but we also have a large chef/professional clientele and sell a lot of specialist chef books including Modernist Cuisine, Ferran Adrià , Michel Bras, Sat Bains, etc. and Lucky Peach.  Perennial favourites include: Nigel Slater, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, MFK Fisher, Marcella Hazan, David Thompson, and many others.  We do champion quality self-published books such as Chin Chin or The Morning Glory Cookbook and our long-term best seller, Preserving the Italian Way.

 Preserving the Italian Way

EYB: What type of books do you like to cook from yourself? 

Our preference is for books that have narrative and story as well as equal parts practicality and deliciousness. We're not great fans of celebrity books, or manufactured expertise. In many ways our favourite books are almost 'old-fashioned' books that will last a lifetime - not a trend. We are often dipping into Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan, Nigel Slater, Yotam Ottolenghi, and the like. Pictures are nice but not a necessity. Currently we are having fun with Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet, Karen Martini's Cooking at Home, Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem, and Thomas Keller's Bouchon

But to be honest, with so many books to try and to choose from, there are always 10 or 20 waiting to be tried; currently at the top of our new release 'pile' are John Currance's Pickles, Pigs & Whisky and Nigel Slater's Eat.

EYB: Do you have a favorite cookbook of all time?

What a tough question - how would you choose between your children?  If we had to choose just one, we probably couldn't. As we hand sell and personally recommend all of our books, the books listed above as best sellers are also many of our favourites. If there was one book we couldn't do without, it would be Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion - it's a go to tome for whatever you didn't know or for inspiration based on an ingredient.

The cook's companion

EYB: You stock more than just cookbooks, do you have a favourite food writer?

Classics like MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Patience Gray are regular favourites and modern cook/journalists like Michael Ruhlman, Michael Pollan, and Bill Buford are on regular rotation for re-reading. Recently we really enjoyed local Australian authors' Jim Ahern's High Season and Charlotte Wood's Love & Hunger

EYB: Are there cultural differences between Australian cookbooks and American Cookbooks?

Absolutely. In the 1980s and 1990s design and photography were significantly elevated in cookbook production here; starting with Jill Dupleix's Old Food - leading to a new standard for cookbook production.  Full color photography throughout , often striking, is mandatory.  Designers also play a large role in cookbook production. Dust Jackets and author profiles are also distinctly different  here. Authors are not as commonly put on the covers of their books; print runs are much much smaller; and our books are always in metric, with ingredients by weight.  On the other hand, author tours are less common simply because Australia is a very large place with not so many people. 

For cookbooks not published in Australia, the book trade usually supplies U.K. editions rather than U.S. editions.

EYB: One last question: What is your favourite meal?

We are spoilt here in Melbourne as our food culture is quite rich and varied. For going out - with a young family - breakfast is often a good option. Another is Yum Cha, Hong Kong style - we have lots of great Yum Cha dumpling restaurants in Melbourne.

At home it's usually something simple - seasonal  European/Mediterranean chosen from a visit to the Victoria market.


6 Comments

  • volition  on  11/20/2013 at 2:24 PM

    One of my favourite shops in the world. If I'm in the area I've always got a ready excuse to go in and browse. Great to see a familiar, helpful face on a website I use regularly too.

  • cookktanner  on  11/22/2013 at 3:56 AM

    This is my favourite book store and can't resist dropping in and checking out the latest books. My last purchase was Chin Chin as mentioned in the article but unfortunately the link provided doesn't take you to the correct book.

  • cookktanner  on  11/22/2013 at 3:56 AM

    This is my favourite book store and can't resist dropping in and checking out the latest books. My last purchase was Chin Chin as mentioned in the article but unfortunately the link provided doesn't take you to the correct book.

  • boardingace  on  11/23/2013 at 5:45 PM

    This was such a fun post to read. For five minutes, I was able to indulge in imagining what is probably a secret fantasy for many of us on www.eatyourbooks.com...owning a cookbook or cooking related shop. It sounds like a ton of work, but so much fun!!! Thank-you again for all of the interesting articles!

  • Lindsay  on  11/25/2013 at 1:32 PM

    Thanks for letting us know about the Chin Chin link; it's been corrected.

  • Aakash12  on  12/3/2013 at 12:56 AM

    Your recipes are so interesting and fabulous. I researched many recipe books but in the end, I probably chose the wrong one. And then I found the right one on Bookfari at http://www.bookfari.com/Category/9/Cooking. Everything tastes better with Bookfari…. .

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