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.


But 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?

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