Book Larder – Heaven for Seattle’s Food Literati
Down on Main Street
I have this thing about small, local businesses that I just can’t get enough of. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia for the Main Street of old, or supporting the little guy, or just liking the uniqueness and tangibility of walking into a specialty store. Whatever it is, I do my best to patronize small businesses with gusto. I’ll admit, I have been caught up in the internet age of shopping and I’ve done my fair share of buying things online to avoid crowds or hassles. But more recently I’ve taken to going into small businesses and poking around, getting to know the owners and staff, and spending my hard earned dollars there.
There are many places that I enjoy going to in Seattle that makes our city unique. Of course, we all have that favorite small indy coffee shop we like to go to. And many of us have that little out-of-the-way restaurant we hide away in hoping it doesn’t get ‘discovered’. I like finding small useful shops that online experience just doesn’t compare to. Perhaps it was my time in France where shopping at 5 different stores to assemble dinner was the accepted norm. For me, this makes going to places like Bottleworks in Wallingford for beer, or Portage Bay Grange in the U District for livestock supplies, Archie McPhee’s in Wallingford for party supplies and Top Ten Toys in Greenwood – the mecca of toys in Seattle – for that great gift for my kids. I love all these places for what they are – specialty shops high on customer service and knowledge about their products. They take pride in being the best at what they do and in knowing more about their trade than anyone else.
Hello Goliath, Meet David…
A place that has recently been on my radar is the Book Larder in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Nestled in to a little strip of shops and restaurants; the Book Larder brings cooking and food literature together in one-of-a-kind place where one can learn many new culinary skills from reading as well as practically by taking one of their in-store cooking classes. When I first happened upon the place, I admit that I was conflicted with both happiness that such a place existed and skepticism that it could survive. I mean – how on earth would a new brick and mortar book shop survive in the city of Amazon? And one that sells only one genre of books for that matter?! That’s like opening a small coffee shop in a city with the largest coffee franchise in the world – oh, but wait, I thought, this makes perfect sense. A cookbook shop in the most well-read city in the US with a huge focus on eating local, sustainable food. OK – good idea.
Tell me a bit about your background pre-Book Larder
Before I opened the Book Larder I worked at Microsoft for 15 years in Leadership Development. I left in 2010 with the intention of doing something in food but I wasn’t quite sure what. I was aware of Books for Cooks in London and thought it would be great to do something like it in Seattle. Seattle is a good town for food and books.
What is your motivation with respect to food?
When I thought about my passions I thought about when I was at Microsoft and how I evolved into the role I was in there. I’d go to meetings and while I found it intellectually challenging I also saw that others around meeting tables were really into it. I wanted to feel like them but didn’t. I loved Microsoft and they were great to me but I wanted to find something where I felt that same passion and energy as the others around me. I realized that I felt best when I was cooking, shopping at farmers markets, when I was travelling to new cities and the like. Then I looked around at my cookbook collection and I had a lot of British cookbooks – and this idea struck.
Where did the idea for a cookbook oriented store come from?
Well, I wrote a blog for about 5 minutes and found that I’m a pretty good editor but a laborious writer. Originally I thought that retail situation wouldn’t be a good thing for me. I thought about writing cookbooks with chefs, recipe development, etc. and sort of threw myself at a couple of people locally that I knew but it didn’t pan out.
What about the competition from the likes of Amazon?
From the very beginning I haven’t seen Amazon as a competitor. They compete based on price and I can’t/don’t compete with them on that basis. We are very different from what they offer. We have a staff that’s very passionate about cookbooks and that human interaction is still better than the computer-based recommendations. We also try to curate the collection. Even though it’s not possible to read every book we do research them all. A big part of our business model is based on events and dinners. Customers have a unique opportunity to come in and buy a book and sometimes have a dinner experience in a restaurant based on the book or even eat with the author.
Being able to get close to it in a way that is a firsthand interaction adds a whole other dimension to what might be a generic retail experience. Cookbooks are all about learning and people want to learn firsthand so we give them that opportunity.
Who is your average customer?
It’s funny, we don’t really have an average customer. They all have one thing in common which is that they all want more of a human experience. They want to choose something and give their money to a business they believe in and one that they want to have in their neighborhood. A broad range of people come in here – some of our best customers are young cooks who spend most of their disposable income on books and eating out. Sometimes this comes before rent and anything else. Some people from other cities who travel her regularly and want to come to get stuff they can’t from other places.
What kind of interest have you gotten in cooking demos and book signings?
We don’t always sell out – sometimes a handful and sometimes a line of people out the door. It really depends on the author and subject. With the explosion of food blogging there are those with strong followings and they draw well. The most popular to date has been Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen. And the Croissant class that Rachael Coyle (our Culinary Director) teaches sells out in a day every time.
Last year we taught 6 classes based on the Ottolenghi book Jerusalem – they just went like that. We should probably do more of those this year…
How do you focus your collection?
I always look at authors with good track records and I keep bringing their things in. It needs to be real cooking. Books that just show the assembly of stuff I don’t care for. A good book needs to focus on recipes. We definitely carry some food writing and memoirs but we don’t do things like diet books. That said, we have some Paleo and lifestyle books.
We also bring in books by new authors all the time. The subject matters – people are super interested in preservation and canning these days so we’re always looking for new content there. People in Seattle are incredibly interested in vegetarian cooking too. I work hard to stay in touch with US, UK and Australian publishers so I know what is available and coming soon.
What is your top selling genre?
Definitely vegetarian and vegan. Michael Pollan’s ‘eat food, not too much, mostly plants’ mantra has hit home for folks. Customers want to eat more vegetables and sometimes that aren’t sure what to do with them and need ideas. Seattle is a big garden city and if someone has glut of vegetables in season and they don’t know what to do with them they come here for ideas
Who is your favorite author?
Not to parrot Renee Erickson but Nigel Slater is my favorite hands down. Yotam Ottolenghi is second and also the Hamilton and Hershimer Canal House books.
What is your favorite book in the store?
The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater and Appetite are two of my favorites. My gateway cookbook is Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It helped shape and define the way I cook.
If you could dine with any famous chef who would it be and why?
I have this fear that he’ll be really cranky which would ruin my fantasy – but I’d hope that Nigel Slater lives up to my expectations of this really lovely person to hang out with. Also, if I could go back in time it would be Julia Child. My Life in France was such an essential book in my life and deciding to do this.
Reading in Seattle’s Burgeoning Gourmet Ghetto
Fortunately for all of us – the Book Larder has both survived and thrived since its inception in 2011. It is the wry little Cheshire cat, sitting there smiling at you invitingly and beckoning you to come in and sample its wares. Once you are inside, you can’t help but to be charmed. It is one more place that makes Seattle what it is – a unique city that isn’t afraid to try new things, reinvent old ones and enjoy a bit of nostalgia while making what was once old, new again.
If you are interested in checking out some of the upcoming events at the Book Larder, please check their Events page here. Get your chance to meet celebrated food authors such as David Lebovitz and Ruth Reichl here in Seattle very soon!