Saturday, July 3, 2010

Omnivore Books: A Treasure in San Francisco

San Francisco is a great city for walking...if you are a mountain goat.

Yes, it is very hilly and if you are unused to walking up and down such hills, it can seem daunting as well as exhausting. It is good exercise though and there is much to explore while wandering the streets. After meandering through the Mission District, I made my way up a hill, in a residental area, into the Noe Valley with a plan in mind, to seek out Omnivore Books, a culinary bookstore.

Independent bookstores devoted specifically to food and drink seem rare and they always attract me. For example, more locally, there is Rabelais in Portland, Maine, which is a compelling destination. While researching San Francisco, I came upon mention of Omnivore Books, a similar type of bookstore, and knew that even with my limited free time, I had to stop there.

The store has been open for less than two years, having opened its doors in November 2008. The personable owner, pictured above, is Celia Sack, who has a lengthy history of her interest with antiquarian books. But, she first opened the Noe Valley Pet Store with her partner, Paula Harris. Her passion for books though eventually led to the opening of Omnivore Books. I spoke a bit with Celia and found her both knowledgeable and passionate, two key traits which should enhance the success of her shop.

If you peruse the shelves of this small store, you will find a treasure trove of culinary wonders, both new and used, common and rare. The books cover a wide range of topics, from cooking to agriculture, from wine to cider, from sustainability to cocktails, and much more. You'll find signed first editions as well as kitschy cookbooks from the 1950s. I was enthralled with the store, eagerly scanning the shelves, seeking what treasures I might find. If you love food and books, this store will greatly appeal to you too.

It is very cool that the bookstore actually used to be a butcher shop, and that is clearly evident from the meat locker and machinery visible in the store. The meat locker area is now used for storage, and adds some interesting color to the store. It is not a sterile, new book store, and instead is a place of character, with a sense of history and place.

In front of the door to the meat locker, is the apparatus which was used to haul large hunks of meat into the locker. I am glad that Celia chose to leave this in place, rather than remove it and thus remove a part of the store's history.

To the right of the meat locker door is also an old scale, with a metal cow.

The front of the store, as well as the door, have large windows that allow plenty of natural light to illuminate the store. It is a bright and cheery store, rather than dim and gloomy. As you enter, there is a table of new culinary books to greet you. Then, just turn your head and see all of the packed shelves of books, and you might have difficulty deciding where to start looking. You will be drawn to several different areas at once, eager to explore.

Maybe like I did, you will start in the corner to the right of the front door and work your way counterclockwise around the store. Though I find plenty of familiar titles, I also found many that I had not seen before. The books are generally arranged by topic, making it easier if you are looking for a certain subject. There is a section for wine, spirits, and other drinks, and I was fortunate to find two out-of-print sherry books that I had been seeking. A nice coup for me.

As you peruse the shelves, you will also find some interesting decorations scattered among the shelves, such as old seltzer bottles or antique nip bottles. These touches all add to the charm of the store. In some of the shelves above, you will find cookbooks and reference works specific to various cuisines. I found a cool encyclopedia of Spanish & Portuguese cuisine, which describes the various dishes you will find in those countries, and explains the terms on restaurant menus. That might help me on my upcoming trip to Spain.

This store has thousands of titles, all fairly neatly shelved and without looking cluttered in the least. It is a place you could easily while away several hours as you slowly examined the shelves, skimming through books of interest. I do wish I could have spent more time here, though maybe my wallet was glad I didn't. I am sure I would have bought more books the longer I stayed, the longer I carefully checked each and every shelf.

They also carry several food magazines, from Culture: The Cheese Magazine to The Art of Eating. Plus, they hold numerous events at the store, from book signings to tastings. Omnivore Books has a neighborhood feel to it, a homey place where regulars often visit. Even if you cannot visit the store, they ship books all over the world. I had the books I bought shipped to me, for a minimal cost, so I wouldn't have to carry them in my luggage. That made everything much easier.

In these days of corporate, chain mega-bookstores, it is very good to see independent bookstores which give you important reasons to visit. Omnivore Books is certainly well deserving of your patronage, and provides a wide selection that you won't find in the chain bookstores. Plus, you get personal service from a passionate owner, Celia. I wish the best for Celia and encourage my readers to visit the store if you are ever in San Francisco, as well as to consider mail ordering books from her. I know I will be seeking out more books from her in the future.

Omnivore Books
3885a Cesar Chavez Street
San Francisco, CA
Phone: 415-282-4712

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