Vegetables

By Gwen Ashley Walters | FEBRUARY 15, 2011 | EAT HERE

As brick and mortar behemoth bookstores battle the new publishing model, specifically monster sales portals like Amazon, a matchbox-size cookbook store in San Francisco is thriving.

In this case, thriving means the owner is paying her rent and pocketing some change while pursuing her passion — not necessarily bankrolling millions.

Wait. A cookbook book store? Yes, San Francisco’s Omnivore Books is a bookstore that stocks only cookbooks and other food & drink books.

It wasn’t that uncommon 10 years ago, but today, cookbook-only stores are either dying (LA’s The Cook’s Library closed in 2009) or carving out small, successful niches.

So far, Omnivore is in the latter category, along with Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York, The Cookbook Stall in Philadelphia and Books for Cooks in London.

San Francisco native Ceila Sack, owner of Omnivore Books, knows a thing or two about books. Especially old books.

She was a rare book specialist at an auction house before she opened Omnivore Books in late 2008. Her specialty was food books.

Sack knew she would never make it if she only carried antiquarian books, but what if she mixed in old cookbooks with new cookbooks?

“I knew I would attract a larger audience if I had new books, and along the way, I could introduce people to the older books,” she says. Has it worked?

Yes, Sack says. She can show her customers a canning book from the turn of the century, then another one from the wartime 1940’s, and finally one published recently, a what’s-old-is-new canning book.

“It’s amazing to see the progression,” she says. And she loves watching her customers make the connection from old to new.

Sack may love antiquarian books, but her methods of enticing people to her Noe Valley neighborhood store are modern. She leverages Twitter and Facebook along with an email mailing list of customers.

“Social media has made a huge difference in my business,” Sack says.

Not surprising. In November, her Facebook page boasted a picture with the tagline “Check out who stopped by yesterday.” The picture was former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl.

On March 17, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, founders of Alinea in Chicago are “stopping by” for a chat — a sold-out chat, but Sack promised in her email newsletter that anyone who wanted a signed copy of their new book, Life, on The Line, could have one.

You just have to call and reserve a book. With a credit card, of course.

Another inventive business tactic, Sack started a cookbook club in 2010. It’s a signed cookbook club, and every three months for those who join, Sack will mail a signed cookbook from an author that’s come by to give a talk.

Four books a year, for $160. For cookbook collectors, it’s a deal. Sack picks the books, customizing each pick to the customer’s profile. It averages $40 per book (shipping is included).

Next time you are in San Francisco, plan a side trip to Omnivore Books. The bookstore is just steps from the J Church Muni Metro route, and as an added incentive, the world class Tartine Bakery is a short 20-minute walk away.

You’ll find Sack chatting with a customer about the latest, greatest cookbook or — even more likely — pointing out some of the rare gems in her cracker box store.

Omnivore Books
3885a Cesar Chavez Street
415-282-4712
San Francisco, CA

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Comments

Mary | FEBRUARY 15, 2011

Beautiful piece, Gwen! My fave bookstore.

Gwen Ashley Walters | FEBRUARY 15, 2011

Thanks Mary! And thanks for pointing out the short distance between Tartine and Omnivore. I bought a book at Omnivore and flipped through it while waiting in line at Tartine…there is always a line at Tartine.

Alison Fryer | FEBRUARY 15, 2011

Love your piece about our fellow cookbook seller; Celia has a terrific shop. For those traveling don’t forget to check out other cookbook stores – in Canada, Australia, France, Germany……….. we are a crazy happy bunch who love to cook and eat!

Gwen Ashley Walters | FEBRUARY 15, 2011

Thank you for commenting! There are other cookbook stores out there, like The Cookbook Store in Toronto:

http://www.cook-book.com/cbs_tv/index.html

Lauren | FEBRUARY 16, 2011

Sad so many bookstores are closing but this one sounds great. I didn’t know a similar outpost exisits here in New York. Does she do online orders? I would prefer to give her my cookbook money.

Jason | FEBRUARY 18, 2011

Good to see there are stores like this one. We need one in Phoenix or Scottsdale.

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