Unit sales of print cookbooks in 2018 were up 21% from 2017 according to NPD BookScan, and that’s good news for the modest but dedicated coterie of culinary bookshops across the country. Some have been around for a year or two, others for decades, but all cater to the appetites of local cooks.
Ken Concepcion, co-owner of Now Serving in Los Angeles, said he sees his shop’s existence as integral to the city’s identity: “You can’t really call yourself a serious food city unless you have a cookbook store.” He and his wife, Michelle Mungcal, opened Now Serving in L.A.’s Chinatown in 2017. It’s just 400 sq. ft., but even at that size, it fills what Concepcion saw as a longtime void. “I’d worked as a bookseller [at now-defunct Library Ltd. in St. Louis] and for Wolfgang Puck for 12 years in Beverly Hills, and I was frustrated after Cook’s Library closed in 2009 that there was no specialized cookbook store in L.A.,” he said. “I waited for someone to open a store, but when I saw no one else going to do it, I figured we might as well try.”
Now Serving stocks 1,400 titles alongside select sidelines: aprons, Japanese knives, and locally made ceramics, for an inventory that’s 60% books. The community been supportive, Concepcion said, and the store also draws repeat customers from, for example, San Diego and Arizona. In formulating his concept for the shop, Concepcion took inspiration from two industry stalwarts: San Francisco’s Omnivore Books on Food, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in November, and New York City’s Kitchen Arts & Letters, which opened in 1983.
The latter shop counts Julia Child and James Beard among its early fans. “People say we’re a cookbook store, but really we’re much more than that,” explained Matt Sartwell, managing partner at Kitchen Arts & Letters. “We sell 12,000 titles, and that covers every kind of book having to do with food and drink—from culinary history and anthropology, to antiquarian books and rare editions, to how-to books on running a restaurant.”
Sartwell noted that the shop is for customers who are more discerning than those who might “buy a cookbook while out browsing for cat food at midnight.” One recent store bestseller is an academic tract titled The Neapolitan Pizza. “It’s a $60 book published by a small Italian publisher outside of Naples,” Sartwell said. “It’s demand for that kind of book that keeps us here.”
Kitchen Arts & Letters hosts many of its events at the nearby 92nd Street Y, where chef Ina Garten drew a crowd of 900 for the 2018 release of Cook Like a Pro. “That was the event where Garten was asked what she would serve Donald Trump for dinner,” Sarwell said. “She replied, ‘a subpoena.’ ”
Because home cooks can find virtually any recipe imaginable online, culinary bookshops need to offer something the internet doesn’t. “Our customers are people who value books but also our expertise,” said Philipe LaMancusa, a retired chef and co-owner of Kitchen Witch Cookbooks in New Orleans. He and co-owner Debbie Lindsey opened the shop in the city’s French Quarter in 1999 and moved three years ago to a more residential neighborhood and a 2,500-sq.-ft. space, which allows them to showcase 10,000 new, used, rare, and out-of-print titles, as well as host pop-up events for area chefs and a weekly vegan tortilla Tuesday in the parking lot.
The move meant a shift from stocking books for tourists—who came in for copies of the store’s all-time bestselling title, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen—to focusing on serving locals, whose tastes mirror the prevailing food trends around the country. These days, Lindsey said, African, Korean, and Middle Eastern cuisines are hot. “When we were in the French Quarter, we couldn’t give away books on Asian cuisine, and now we can’t keep enough in stock.”
Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco sells items of local culinary interest—vintage event menus from the Bay Area’s influential Chez Panisse, for instance—and imports titles that aren’t readily available locally, or even online. “We do feel the challenge of competing with online sellers,” said manager Sarah Henkin. “Celia Sack [the store’s owner] realized early on she needed to offer something Amazon couldn’t. We just got a shipment of hard-to-find books from the Philippines, and we’re loving the high-quality self-published passion projects, such as the recently released Jia! The Food of Swatow and the Teochew Diaspora by Diana Zheng and Gnocchi Solo Gnocchi by Christine Y. Hickman.”
In Seattle, Lara Hamilton, owner of Book Larder in Seattle, said she relies on annual trips abroad to help her source titles for the store. “I just got back from a trip to London and found the most amazing book, Black Sea by Caroline Eden. The photography is great, and it’s about a part of the world we don’t see in cookbooks much.”
Book Larder, which opened in 2011, stocks 2,500 new, used, and antiquarian titles; the on-site kitchen hosts classes and author events. “2018 was our best sales year ever,” Hamilton said, attributing the growth to a resurgence in people cooking and entertaining at home. And though home cooks pore over beautifully plated food on social media, she added, what they find on an Instagram feed has been curated for how it looks, not how it tastes. “Recipes in cookbooks are reliable. It’s what keeps us in business.”
For more on cookbooks, see “Be Our Guest.”