Cookbooks Sell: Why food & drink is today’s hot niche for booksellers
- by Susan Halas
When it comes to selling books about food and drink the news is all good.
In case you hadn’t noticed cookbooks still sell. Old and new, bright or faded, pristine or with loose hinges, covered with pencil scribbles and pages interleaved with clipped recipes…. macht nichts, when you’re talking books about cooking the market is still growing: in number of titles produced, volume of sales and increased interest in the subject matter.
Call it food & drink, gastronomy, or culinary arts - by any name, new, used, out-of-print, antiquarian, rare books, ephemera and manuscripts about cooking and related fields are still holding their own against the digital tidal wave. And so are the booksellers who specialize in this field.
In fact, talking with some of the proprietors of America’s leading culinary specialists will remind you why you wanted to sell books in the first place: Because it’s fascinating, because you love the subject; you love your customers; the thrill of the chase never goes away and retail or by appointment, high end or low, East Coast or West, this is the print sweet spot in a digital age.
Leading our list of dealers who shine is Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Maine, who has been an active bookseller since 1979 in a variety of fields. Lindgren, 56, and his wife moved from Brooklyn to Maine in 2004. Two years later the couple opened a retail shop in Portland, ME specializing in cookery - new - used - rare. Those days are over. “As time went by my personal interests took over,” said Lindgren, while his wife Samantha went on to pursue other interests. In 2011 Rabelais moved to nearby Biddeford and is now by appointment only. The firm has about 30,000 items in stock from the 17th century to the present, about half ephemera. Rabelais also serves those inclined towards thirst, with books on first growth wines and home brewing, cocktail culture and saloon society."
Lindgren is a wonderful explainer and his catalogs combine a discerning eye with excellent scholarship. Lucky for you they can all be downloaded as pdfs. I notice that a few are still available in hard copy for a modest price. This writer was particularly taken with #2 focused on the industrialization of food.
In the introduction to his 10th catalog he observes: “While old cookbooks have long been loved and collected, the systematic collecting of cookbooks remains a young-ish field, somewhat overlooked by parts of the world of institutional special collections (with some notable and magnificent exceptions), and by antiquarian booksellers (again, with some notable and magnificent exceptions). This is good news, as it is still possible to find unrecognized and under examined works out in the wild, at book fairs, in used and antiquarian bookshops, and on the shelves of kitchen libraries.”
Lindgren, along with others, notes the increasing interest in ephemera. He was also one of several to mention the strong demand for manuscript materials, whether they be recipes written out in long hand or other original material related to the domestic or commercial food and beverage landscape.
Who would have thought that 90 percent of his customers would be institutional and or that those institutions would be so knowledgeable and avid to acquire the choicest offerings?
“We also serve dedicated private collectors,” Lindgren said. Whether it’s special copies of important books or association copies, he finds private collecting interests are more focused than ever before. He even has a term I had not heard before to describe that tattered but alluring old volume. “Condition doesn’t have to be pristine, he said, “‘evidence of use’ makes it more interesting, to see who owned it, and show its history.”
What’s missing today, in his opinion is “a new generation” of collectors. “The people I see are mainly the same ones as seven years ago, I don’t see people in their 20s-50s. I don’t see the impulse to put together say a nice little shelf on 19th century chocolate.”
Writing about cooking, he notes, dates back to 2,500 BC when the first cooking lore was recorded on tablets, cylinders and seals. Fast forward a couple thousand years and today this is a specialty market that's strong at the top and the bottom and is “broad and soft in the middle.” And, he adds, “what you think will sell is not always what flies off the shelf.” Lindgren and his fellow dealers are always buying, always interested in seeing what is offered, and in his own case, “willing to travel if it’s exceptional.”
In many ways he finds the trade “the same as it was when booksellers queried each other using post cards. “We still sell a lot of books to each other, except the internet and email speeds it up; but essentially it’s relationship selling.” Yes, he is making a living, and finds it is “a full time plus job.”
His enthusiasm for a chosen field is refreshing. His own preference runs to “small and humble locally produced.” He also likes “the regional and obscure, books that don’t appear in bibliography.”
In that vein, RBH readers will want to keep an eye out for his latest special project: a six volume series on American cookbooks of the kind issued by churches, women’s clubs and civic groups from the Civil War to WWII, arranged alphabetically by state. Volume #1 A--DC is due off the press shortly and sure to find an appreciative audience.
His tastes may be humble but his credentials are definitely top drawer: he is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA); a member of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), and the Ephemera Society of America.
Asked to name a few favorite colleagues, he easily produced a short list including: Ben Kinmont in Sebastopol, California (“Very rare, very early, expert cataloging”); Celia Sack at Omnivore in San Francisco (“Her events are fabulous.”); Tom Nealon at Pazzo in Boston: Lizzy Young in Brooklyn and Bonnie Slotnick in Manhattan’s East Village (She is in Lindren’s opinion “a truly lovely person”). (Contact info for all of these dealers at the end of this article; comments from several follow.)
“Food has gone crazy,” says Tom Nealon, at Pazzo Books, who turns 47 this month. He’s located in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood and has multiple claims to fame. He’s the self proclaimed “King of Condiments,” and also the man who has tried to eat every dish mentioned by Chaucer. Currently, his enthusiasm runs high for the cooking of Mexico. “It’s one of the world’s great cuisines, but it has a lot of catching up to do.”
Nealon began Pazzo in 2003 as an open shop and is now by appointment only. “I sort of evolved….I slowly started to specialize -- moved to 1st editions and older stuff, wrote a blog and free lanced for regionals like the Boston Globe.
His most notable current project is Food Fights and Culture Wars, a book he’s written in cooperation with the British Library, soon to be released in an American edition by the Overlook Press.
“Revolution! Conflict! Gluttony!” shouts the publisher’s exclaim laden promo copy announcing “the gloriously illustrated history of food, including mythical origin stories, unusual recipes and more! …. So much of what happens with food is never written down, never immortalized: all the evidence eaten, forgotten, until now.” Nealon says that all of the books referenced in the new title are from the British Library or his own collection.
Celia Sack, 49, of Omnivore Books, in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, runs an open shop that has become quite a foodie destination. It’s in a quieter neighborhood where the rent is not as high as the glossier parts of the city. She is well known for her ever changing list of guests, talks and signings. “We have regular author talks where the speaker discusses their new food book - it can be anything: pizza, restaurants in San Francisco, noodles, culinary history.” Sack has a book auction background and spent seven years with San Francisco’s Pacific Book Auction and still does some contracting for them. “While I worked there my collecting interest became books on food, about a third of my stock is antiquarian and the rest new.”
Unlike Lindgren in rural Maine, who doesn’t see many new faces, there are lots of young collectors in her mostly metro client base. “My books are out to touch and explore. A lot them are from mid-century, the 1950s -- 1960s. They cost less than a new cookbook. I call them the ‘gateway drug to collecting.’” Her advice to others in the trade is: “Don’t make it so refined that young people are intimidated. In the past I’ve gotten such a strong feeling from dealers that they didn’t want me to handle the merchandise. The news is they (the customers) will be careful and will get a fire lit under them. Get comfortable with it. The rarefied atmosphere has to go away in order to get new customers.”
Sack doesn’t do catalogs, but she does use all the goodies in the social media tool box and it results in lots of coverage and recognition. Her website has a vintage books page and she also sends out a list of recent antiquarian arrivals every six weeks or so.
She sees the key to being successful in this specialty as “figuring out how to get around Amazon by doing something that Amazon can’t.” That includes hosting celebrity chefs like Jacques Pepin and Nigella Lawson who have been recent guests.
“Events with those kinds of authors are great for me and my customers. Social media really helps me with marketing my own business. If I have something interesting I post it on Instagram or Twitter; inevitably I will get a contact even if they don’t live nearby. And when a famous chef comments on one of my posts all of their fans see that, so that will become their taste too.”
“Nigella Lawson,” Sack observes, “has has 1.5 million followers; when she retweets something about Omnivore it gets seen. It makes people who have never heard of me want to visit; it all leads to more.” Even without the multiplier effect that comes from being noticed by those with a high media profile, Sack, who has 18,000 Twitter followers, is doing nicely on her own.
Trending at her shop are: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat - an illustrated guide to master the elements of cooking -- without recipes by Samin Nosrat, which she calls “this year’s bestseller.” Also popular is Buttermilk Graffiti-- a chef’s journey to discover America’s new melting-pot cuisine by Edward Lee.
As for competition, she welcomes new booksellers to the trade and comments,“There’s always room for more. It’s helpful that a couple (of new shops specializing in cooking) have opened on the West Coast, because it makes it easier for authors to do book tours.”
Bonnie Slotnick, 64, has had her own retail store in Manhattan for 20 years. With a background in publishing and book scouting she made the transition to bookselling in 1997 and never looked back. Slotnick says the only reason she’s able to afford to continue as an open shop in New York City is “I’ve had the same apartment since 1976, and it keeps my personal rent stabilized.”
Slotnick, who moved from the West Village to the East Village not too long ago does not sell new books, does not much care for the internet or the digital world, is leery of celebrity chefs and their minions and is mostly focused on being the kind of bookstore that caters to people who actually cook. These are, in her words. “younger people working their way up, serious about finding out what came before. We’re right by NYU where they have a graduate food studies program. I see culinary school grads on their first jobs or apprenticeship, people with expanding interests, writers looking for background info, or those interested in life in old New York.”
She sells only cookbooks, culinary ephemera, and also a few related items like table linen. Her shop is not a bargain or thrift store. “This is not the place for people who think used stuff should be $3. The majority of my books are priced under $30 and ephemera under $10. I do about five events a year, almost always for friends of the shop. I’ll do a book launch for someone from the neighborhood, somebody who tells me about a book she’s written, and if it’s unusual enough I’d like to have it get more attention.”
Slotnick will be 72 when her present lease is up and doesn’t have plans to do anything else. “I’m the opposite of people who hate their jobs. I always have work and it’s always different. People from all over the country contact me when they have books to sell.” She asks them to send photos of shelves and picks what she wants from what she sees. She has done some appraising most notably the personal collection of Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf who was best known for having rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from the reject pile. Jones, who died in 2017, also championed Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
What’s trending now in her shop is “middle of the road 20th century stuff. People are also looking for material on fermentation: today there are books that bring all those processes together, but with older books you need to look at the individual subjects, like cheesemaking, brewing, pickling, and sourdough. There’s also a lot of interest in food writing — books that don’t just supply recipes (or have no recipes at all) but tell a kind of story. MFK Fisher is a good place to start, and I sell lots of copies of her book The Art of Eating to customers looking for a gift.”
Slotnick doesn’t think “there’s one thing that everyone must or should have. I tell my customers look at some books, take them off the shelf and go sit in the backyard to compare them. Find what really suits you. Personally, I refuse to make “10 best” lists - they’re such a big thing these days, but I think they’re meaningless. What I do suggest when they come in here is they put their phones away; and I do stop people from taking photos of pages—or barcodes. This isn’t Barnes and Noble.”
She doesn’t have many regrets, but she does wish, “I had had some kind of business training. I had an intern show me how to do a spreadsheet, otherwise I’d still be writing in a ledger by hand.”
For those who want to enter the field she advises, “Make sure that this is where your passion really is, not a pastime, something you’ll get tired of. You’re going to be working more than 80-100 hours a week.” For herself, there’s nothing she’d rather be doing.
Links and contact information for the booksellers and shops mentioned in this article:
Don Lindgren, Rabelais - Fine Books on Food & Drink
2 Main Street, Suite 18-214
Biddeford, Maine 04005
Link to his catalogs as pdfs -Check out #2 Between Farm & Table
Other Food & Drink Booksellers recommended by Lindgren:
Ben Kinmont - Bookseller, Sebastopol, CA
Rare & early books on gastronomy, visitors by appointment or on the internet
684 North Main Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472
An interesting section on antique recipes on his web site
Celia Sack - Omnivore Books in San Francisco’s Noe Valley
Open shop new, used, rare. Hosts many food figures passing through the city. According to Lindgren, “Her events are fabulous.”
Omnivore - Books on Food
3885a Cesar Chavez Street
(at Church Street)
San Francisco, CA 94131
Omnivore is a destination experience. It hosts a newsletter, cookbook club, has frequent in-store events and speakers both on cooking and cooking history. The website includes vintage books and signed books, also has archives of recently sold books.
A big social media user she also has a Twitter feed and other accounts.
Tom Nealon- Pazzo Books, Roslindale, MA (a neighborhood in Boston)
www.pazzobooks.com Open by appointment. Self proclaimed “King of Condiments”
16 Johnswood Rd.
Boston, MA 02131
Food writing hilobrow.com/author/tnealon
Forthcoming book: www.overlookpress.com/by-title/food-fights-and-culture-wars.html
Lizzy Young Bookseller - Brooklyn, NY
154 Carroll Street A2
Brooklyn, NY 11231
RBH was not able to touch base with her personally, but here’s a quote from her website:
“Culinary books give you a window into the cultural narrative of the specific time and place in which the book was composed. I have always been in love with cookbooks. When I was an assistant editor at Gourmet Magazine my desk was in the middle of their library. Imagine a job where they pay you to be surrounded by cookbooks. Well, now I spend most days immersed in food and drink culture; researching and cataloging.”
Bonnie Slotnick Books, NYC East Village,
Shop is comfortable and cozy, with a back garden. Tries to have something for everyone, from novice cook to professional chef to recreational reader to gift shopper. Strongly encourages in-person shopping; doesn’t sell online but is happy to do mail order via phone or email. Etiquette and housekeeping books as well as table linens, old kitchen gadgets, vintage tableware.
28 East Second St.
New York, NY 10003
Have books to sell? Send digital photos and make you inquiries by email. Likes to see photos of the whole shelf. Website has an informative list of other independent bookstores in her East Village neighborhood.