Profile: Celia Sack, Cookbook Queen

By Jonathan Kauffman

Photograph by Kimberly Sandie

Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books, San Francisco's culinary bookstore, has spent 36 of her 40 years in the city. There was a four-year hiatus on the East Coast — studying art history at Sarah Lawrence College — but as soon as she graduated, she returned west. She was following a girlfriend, of course. “It was a dumb reason, but I'm glad I came back,” she laughs. “I loved New York, but San Francisco is such a handleable city. I enjoy the calm and the way that so many people are connected, that smaller-town feel.”

Taking a typically San Franciscan zigzag career path, Sack has ended up at the center of this city's even smaller culinary community. After working for seven years for an auction house, where she prepared catalogues of antiquarian books for auction — she inadvertently became the West Coast expert on rare golf books — she opened Noe Valley Pet Store on Church and Cesar Chavez with her partner, Paula Harris. Over the course of the store's 11 years, Sack has gotten to know most of the pet owners in southwestern San Francisco, sidelining as a dog walker. (“Fort Funston is the cream of the crop,” she says of her favorite dog runs. “There's a parking lot down by the horse stables, and a hole in the fence nearby where you can walk into the park. It's the route the hang gliders take to the beach.”)

During that decade, Sack channeled her passion for rare books into a private antiquarian cookbook collection. Then, at a book fair, she met the owner of Rabelais Books in Portland, Maine, who stocked his store with both old and new cookbooks. He inspired her to do the same, placing 1960s books on wild-food foraging next to current ones, displaying Auguste Escoffier alongside modern master chef Michel Bras. Since November 2008, when Omnivore opened, Sack has gotten to know Alice Waters' tastes (books on victory gardens, not surprisingly), has enticed Ruth Reichl into buying a first edition of A.J. Liebling's Between Meals, and has seen her store become the destination for internationally known food writers touring their new books.

Sack has also become a de facto restaurant guide to the many food-obsessed tourists who find their way to her shop. “A lot of the time I try to keep them in the neighborhood by sending them to Incanto, or La Ciccia, the Sardinian restaurant,” she says. “I also send a lot of people to Gialina, as well as Zuni and A16.”

When asked about the book that, to her, most symbolizes San Francisco cuisine, she replies, “I have to say Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook. It's not just a quintessential California or San Francisco book — it's a great book to learn from.”

These days, Sack gets most of her 19th-century cookbooks through the mail from antiquarian book dealers and book scouts. But she still takes time on Tuesdays to scout. Her favorite spot is the Book Bay at Fort Mason. “It's run by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, and all the books are donated,” she says. “The prices are awesome, and I've found many first editions. You can spend an afternoon there, then go over to the Greens takeout counter, and sit on the water and watch the boats while you eat.”

And although Sack has become an integral part of San Francisco's food scene — did the West Coast's culinary capital really not have a store like this before? — she doesn't face the burnout that many chefs, restaurateurs, and farmers do. “I'm just so happy that I was able to get into the food business without ruining it for myself,” she says.

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