4 May 2020

Saucing the right books for hungry customers

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 4 May 2020

Celia Sack has a pretty special shop. It's called Omnivore Books and it collects and sells cookbooks from all over the world from its brick and mortar storefront in San Francisco.

Remote delivery of books has taken on a whole new level of life under lockdown and Sack has noticed a huge spike in interest in home cooking and culinary experimentation.

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Photo: Omnivre Books

She's also an author herself. Her book The Omnivore's Recipe Keeper helps people build their own recipe books.

Opened in 2008, the shop is only 500 square feet but is “filled to the rafters with wonderful cookbooks” Sack told Kathryn Ryan.

She says even though 2008 was a bad time to start a business, Omnivore Books took off almost immediately.

“It’s really interesting because a lot of the people who were coming in here had been in the tech industry in the Bay area.

“The area of my shop that became really popular was the DIY section; pickling, brewing beer, baking bread and butchering.”

There was also a kind of push back against tech, she says.

“When there’s an innovation technologically there’s often a push back against that, the arts and craft movement coming up during the industrial revolution.

“This was sort of like that with the tech revolution happening, all these people just going back to raise their own chickens and preserve their own tomatoes.”

Chefs from all over the world have launched books at the store, she says.

“[Yotam] Ottolenghi has been here four times to give talks, Nigella Lawson, your Lauraine Jacobs.”

She has a background as a book buyer and cataloguer and developed a speciality in cook books during her time working for Pacific Book Auction.

One of her favourite finds was a collection in California, a woman from whom she’d been buying books individually.

“There are these certain collections that you stumble on to that make your heart sing and break at the same time.”

She arranged to visit the woman to see the whole collection for herself.

“And I walked in and it was this entire floor of incredible cookbooks, just the best collection, mostly 19th century, fantastic African-American collection, California collection, just everything. Every important book that you wanted.

“And she was just a collector, she was in her 70s, her kids didn’t want them and she decided to pass them on to people who would.”

The find was bitter-sweet however.

“I had this immediate sadness that I was probably never going to come across a library like this again.”

Sack says there is a renewed interest in the old school recipe book writers, after a period where celebrity and chef recipe books were all the rage.

“They’ve gone back to the older, better known people like Dorie Greenspan and Paula Wolfert, Melissa Clark and Andrea Nguyen.”

And new personalities are emerging from sites such as Bon Appétit such as Alison Roman, Priya Krishna and Carla Lalli Music.

“I was shocked because I missed the boat on that and those people would have like their first cookbook and come to my store and it was mobbed.”

A native of San Francisco, she says she’s delighted an idea she had on a whim had proved so successful.

“I just made up this idea one day in my head and now it’s a place that people depend on and want to come to from all over the world and it’s just so fun to have made it up out of thin air.”

And in this time of lockdown she can’t keep up with demand for bread-making books.

“Bread books are flying out the door … It’s great that people are cooking more, they’re going to come out of this with a lot of skills that they never knew they would have.”