New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.
Celia Sack's Omnivore Books is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Inside the culinary bookstore, new, glossy hardcovers lay near fading collectibles. Sack is usually on hand to recommend titles, although she's just as happy to talk restaurants, CSAs, and farmer's markets. Her personal touch is everywhere; offerings include rare books from her own collection and eggs from her neighbor in Tomales Bay.
Sack was kind enough to talk to us about bookselling in Noe Valley, and what to look forward to this fall.
When I moved to Noe last year, I assumed that Omnivore Books was a longstanding institution, but you actually opened in 2008.
Yes indeed. I've owned Noe Valley Pet Company next door with my partner Paula since 1998, but was a rare book specialist for many years prior to that. When this space became available, I took it over and decided to get back into bookselling.
How much of your personal collection ended up in the store?
Only the wine books; I'm too attached to everything else!
Ah, so what are you hiding at home?
An entire library of Victorian-era cookbooks and agricultural guides. Within that collection, there is a focus on ice cream and confectionery books.
As far as book buying for the store, do you have a general philosophy?
Is it useful? Is it new or fresh? Is it interesting? Of course, all of these questions lead to the big one: Will it sell? I love to champion the lesser known books that I stand behind, or some of the older or less sexy cookbooks that nevertheless are stalwarts in my kitchen: the Sunset Cookbook, the Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbok, My Bombay Kitchen, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. They all stand the test of time.
What's been selling well this summer?
Jerusalem. Jerusalem. Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is my go-to cookbook these days -- with honorable mentions going to Smitten Kitchen and My Persian Kitchen. Is there a summer title you wished got a bit more attention?
Yes, Saving the Season by Kevin West. It's like a textbook for canning and preserving, mostly with fruit. It's thoughtful, expertly written, and a really important addition to the canon of preserving books.
With a couple of exceptions, Bay Area publishers tend to be in New York's shadow. When it comes to cooking related books, however, we're quite strong.
Agreed. But that's obviously because we have the best food here. A completely unbiased statement.
Cookbooks make up the majority of your offerings, but you also carry vintage postcards, prints, food memoirs -- and eggs!
I have a weekend house in Tomales, and my neighbor sells me his eggs. It's nice to support the community up here, but my customers are so attached to the eggs, I fear for my life if I skip a trip to Tomales occasionally!
I'm not one to resort to violence, but if the eggs suddenly disappeared, we'd have to have a serious talk. Do you have any plans to expand your perishable offerings?
Nope - I really want to concentrate on being solely a bookshop and not dilute my brand, so to speak. Plus, I don't want the salespeople that would bring!
Noe Valley is a small village, and businesses seem to welcome new arrivals. I learned about Olive This, Olive That from The 24th Street Cheese Co. Do you ever collaborate on events?
I collaborate with Contigo occasionally, and Olive This... has offered to provide samples if we ever have an appropriate event to coordinate. Noe Valley is such a great community, and the rents are very fair - I wish more interesting businesses would come to "outer Noe", where we are. The customers are there, we just need the cool businesses!
A book fits within your brand, right? May I buy a book by Celia Sack from Celia Sack?
Yes, you can buy it right here! It's called The Omnivore's Recipe Keeper and was published a few years back by Ten Speed Press. It is filled with images from my home library and has blank pages and pockets for you to add your own recipes.
What can we look forward to this fall at Omnivore?
Local stars all have books coming out: David Kinch, Daniel Patterson, Fatted Calf's Taylor Boetticher, Joyce Goldstein, Jon Bonne. And some international chefs as well: Alex Atala (Brazil), Rene Redzepi (Denmark), and Anne-Sophie Pic (France). Should be a powerful year for cookbooks!
This interview was lightly edited and condensed.