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.
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.
“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.
3885a Cesar Chavez Street
San Francisco, CA