FEAST: Q&A with Celia Sacks, owner/founder of Omnivore Books
In the age of the Kindle, who gets excited about actual books anymore? If response to Omnivore Books is any indication, the answer is: foodies. At a recent Frank Bruni reading, people were lined up outside Celia Sack's new Noe Valley shop, clamoring for a peek. And at her first pie contest, 48 folks entered, 80 judges tasted, and everyone left happy. All the excitement may sound like something only a big-box bookstore or corporate-sponsored festival could pull off, but it's clear the former pet food purveyor has struck a nerve with her delightful little niche shop. Since it opened last November, the shop has attracted high-profile chefs, prolific writers, food personalities, and activists ready to immerse themselves in a petite enclave of local food culture, along with foodies looking for a cookbook or a rare collectors' item. A high point for Sacks? Introducing Michael Pollan and Alice Waters in the same week. So how did Sacks create such a uniquely popular community space where old books, new books, and farm fresh eggs commingle? We popped in to meet the proprietor and find out.
SFBG Tell me about how the bookstore came to be.
Celia Sacks I worked at Noe Valley Pet Company on the corner with my partner, Paula. The idea for the bookstore came to be after the space next door opened up one day. We jumped on it, knowing we wanted it for something, just not sure for what.
SFBG So why the niche bookstore?
CS It's really my collecting interest. I love books on food. I really love books on the trade: how to open your own bakery, meat shop, how to run it. I love the aesthetics of them. It's such an interesting look-back at history.
But I soon realized I'm not going to make it by just selling older books. There's this bookstore in Portland, Maine, called Rablelais. I met the owners, and they sell new and old. It all came together for me at that point. For example, the owner had an organic farming book from 1948 next to something by Michael Pollan. I realized that when you have new books alongside old books, you can get people who aren't even collectors excited about collecting.
SFBG How do you envision your shop as part of the community?
CS First, the events really give people something to do. Noe Valley is quiet, and the area is really lacking in culture in a lot of ways except for music and, of course, City Arts and Lectures. But it's nice to offer the community something to do. And it's such a foodie city! The events have brought in a lot of chefs and local food personalities.
SFBG We noticed you're on Twitter. Has it helped you reach out to the community in new ways?
CS I'm the perfect person to ask, actually, because I'm so not tech-savvy. But it's a great way to connect if you write well. It's obviously an important tool for marketing, but I like to blend personal writing within that. Sometimes I do certain contests over Twitter, offering extra copies of a book or advance proofs.
SFBG What's been most popular at the shop recently?
CS The Gastronomica issue featuring Julia Child is pretty big. Also, A Platter of Figs, The Art of Simple Food, A16 Food and Wine, and In Defense of Food. All local authors!
SFBG How do you find all the amazing rare stuff you carry?
CS Some of it online, book dealers, antiquarian book fairs I'll often get referred to an estate. I used to work at a rare book auction house, and they sometimes refer people to me.
SFBG What are your favorite cookbooks or food writers?
CS Zuni Café Cookbook is probably my favorite. But I also love Sunday Suppers at Lucques similar in a lot of ways. And of course, Roast Chicken and Other Stories. The nice thing about the Zuni book is that Judy Rodgers actually teaches you why you're doing what you're doing. The other night, I made her recipe for chicken braised in honey, vinegar and figs amazing.
SFBG How much has the declining economy affected your business at the shop?
CS I love opening in a recession: there's nowhere to go but up. I'm not worried. If I have a bad day, I have to remind myself of the big picture and know that later in the week I'll have a good day, too.
Omnivore Books, 3885 Cesar Chavez, SF. (415) 282-4712, omnivorebooks.com
UPCOMING (MOSTLY FREE) EVENTS
Oct. 31, 45 p.m. Julie Usher, author of Cookie Swap
Nov. 1, 3-4 p.m. Pim Techamuanvivit, author of The Foodie Handbook
Nov. 6, 67 p.m. Jaden Hair, author of The Steamy Kitchen: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight's Dinner
Nov. 8, 34 p.m. Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkle, authors of The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship
Nov. 14, 3-4 p.m. Pat Tanumihardja, author of The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook
Nov. 21, 4-5 p.m. $5: Pumpkin cooking contest. Bring any pumpkin dish (from cookies to mole) and let everyone judge. Winner splits the door fee with Omnivore.
Dec. 6, 3:30 p.m. Thomas Keller, signing his new cookbook Ad Hoc at Home