After owning a pet store for 10 years, Celia Sack opened Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco last November. Prior to the pet store, Sack had worked at the rare book auction gallery Pacific Auction. After meeting the proprietor of Rabelais, a cookbook store in Portland, Maine, she was inspired to open a cookbook shop of her own. Her 560 square-foot space in Noe Valley carries a mix of old and new books (but not many by Food Network authors) and has already hosted signings by Ruth Reichl, Deborah Madison, Molly Wizenberg and other heavyweights. Sack talked to Cooking the Books about her first six months in business.
PW: What’s the ratio of old and new books in your store?
CS: It’s about two-thirds new and one-third vintage. By vintage I mean not really used books but either really old and rare, or collectible, like James Beard’s The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery, from the 1950s.
PW: Why did you decide to sell both old and new books?
CS: The rare book world is very rarefied. You either have a bookstore where everything’s behind glass, or you’re a private dealer and you just deal by appointment. I thought by stocking new books, I would draw people in, and then I’d also have open shelves, with $200 books right there for people to take down and look at. It’s really nice to trust people. They’re like, “Oh my god, can I touch this?” The rarest ones are close to [the cashier], and you’d have to get up on a stepladder to get them. But the accessibility has made people so excited. People who weren’t collectors are coming in for newer books and then making this connection to the past. A lot of the older books—like an Italian cookbook from the 1920s—are in the $35 to $45 range. People would spend that for A16 Food + Wine. Then they become collectors.
PW: Where do you get the vintage books you sell?
CS: I get them from dealers, and I go to estate sales and auctions. That’s the fun part of my job: the treasure hunt, scrapping around part.
PW: What about recently out-of-print books?
CS: I’m learning that some new books that go out of print really fast get collectible. For instance, David Lebovitz’s books go out of print, and I don’t know why, because they’re really popular. They shoot up to $150 sometimes. Once in awhile I can find books like his at garage sales or used book stores, and then there’s a bidding war over them.
PW: What hard-to-find books do your customers ask for?
CS: Foreign cookbooks. All the chefs want Noma Nordic Cuisine, published by a publisher in Denmark. It has a lot of molecular gastronomy in it. It’s a good reason to make a trip to Denmark, just so I can buy out the rest of their stock! I also get a lot of British imports. They bring in chefs and people who can’t get those books on Amazon. The British River Cottage books have been hugely popular here.
PW: What new books are selling well?
CS: Baked, Ottolenghi and Michel Bras’s Essential Cuisines are selling well. I find that the local authors do best: books by Alice Waters, The Zuni Café Cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, My Bombay Kitchen and A16. The New York restaurant ones, like The Balthazar Cookbook, The Union Square Café Cookbook and Chanterelle, don’t do well. They don’t seem to translate out here. And I don’t sell any of the Food Network chefs except the Barefoot Contessa.