Thirty-year-old Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City is arguably the granddad of independent cookbook stores in the U.S. But it’s not the only store to create a book haven for chefs, bartenders, and home cooks. Over the past decade, New England in particular has become home to specialty bookstores, provision shops, and tasting kitchens. They range from Rabelais Books in Biddeford, Maine, which stocks 30,000 books and ephemera, the bulk of which are out-of-print and rare, dating from the 16th century on up, to the newly opened Farm & Fable in Boston’s South End, which carries just over 200 books, split evenly between new and vintage titles, along with copper pans and vintage glassware.
“Last year was very rich in books that appeal to our customer base, people who make their living off of food,” says Matt Sartwell, newly anointed managing partner of Kitchen Arts. His only complaint is that publishing houses load the bulk of their biggest and sexiest books into the fall.
“Some people think we’re too snobby,” says Rabelais co-owner Don Lindgren, whose criteria for selecting books is that they represent the vision of the author/chef and help the reader become a better cook. Joe Yonan’s Eat Your Vegetables (Ten Speed) is among the books that sold well in 2013.
Rabelais doesn’t discount. So importing books like the Ottolenghi trilogy, which Lindgren began bringing in from the U.K. in 2008 is one way that he tries to stay ahead of Amazon. Lindgren also seeks out self-published books and receives a number of electronic blads each week and sample copies from authors.
Other indie stores have a different advantage over the mega-retailer like seven-year-old Stir in Boston’s South End, part of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo of restaurants (Lynch is the author of Stir cookbook). “The secret about Stir,” says book buyer Johnny Siever, “is that it doesn’t survive on book revenue.” He orders books and journals like Fool and Tong selectively with the chefs in the restaurant group in mind, along with titles that will work for the demonstration kitchen/cookbook store’s classes and events.
Nearby Farm & Fable tries to make cookbooks accessible through its book club, which kicked off last month with Emily and Melissa Elsen’s The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book (Grand Central). As a person who likes to read cookbooks the ways some people read novels, Ruettgers developed the club for similarly minded customers. Everyone has to cook something from the book and bring it in.
The owners of the Blue Room restaurant and Belly Wine Bar also own Central Bottle Wine + Provisions in Central Square Cambridge, which began carrying books last fall that complement its selection of wine, cheese, and charcuterie. “We were sitting around and looking at the wine wall and wanted to break it up,” says chef Stacey Daley, who has found that selling books like The Silver Spoon Cookbook (Phaidon) helps the staff as well as customers learn more about food preparation. The store has also begun doing food tastings with writers like Rick and Michael Mast, authors of Mast Brothers Chocolate (Little, Brown), and cocktails with Deidre Heekin, author of Libation, a Bitter Alchemy (Chelsea Green).