Voracious book collector Celia Sack is celebrating a decade of rare reads, author events, and book signings at her Noe Valley cook book store Omnivore Books on Food. At the height of the recession, with “nowhere to go but up,” Sack opened Omnivore at 3885 Cesar Chavez — located in the same former butcher shop building as Noe Valley Pet Co, a business Sack and her wife already operated.
These days, Sack’s wife runs the pet supply store while Sack focuses on Omnivore, channeling expertise from her work at an auction house dealing in rare books. “We have an informal bet about who can sell more dog food cookbooks,“ says Sack, “and I’m winning by a mile.”
Sack isn’t just selling the most books on dog food: She’s become a fixture of the Bay Area food community, a leader of its literary salon. No chef’s book tour would be complete without a visit to her store, and over the decade, she’s celebrated local authors alongside the world’s best-known chefs and food writers, from Charles Phan and Sean Brock to Nigella Lawson and David Lebovitz.
Eater spoke with Sack on the occasion of her decade in business: A 10 year anniversary event will be held at Omnivore on Saturday, November 3rd, with food from Tacolicious as well as drinks and well-deserved cake.
On her recipe for success
When I started in 2008 it was the bottom of the recession, so there was nowhere to go but up, and Amazon was already well in play, so I thought of how to work around what was working for them to be different from them.... I was lucky since I wasn’t already in business, I didn’t have to pivot.
I had been a rare books specialist at an auction house in San Francisco, so I knew I could stand out with antiquarian books. I’ve been scouting for so long, [looking at] rare and vintage books, and so I put that to use — I was just at Green Apple Books all morning today, looking for things that are unique.
Author events I also thought would be a really good idea, because getting to be in front of your favorite author, that’s something you definitely can’t do on Amazon. Signed books are a big part of it too.
Those were my ideas, and they’ve worked out really well.
On what books she’ll actually buy
It’s a fine line, because people will always bring me their 1970s Moosewood Cookbook.... once in a while, I’ll get something good. I haven’t found a way to quickly explain that I don’t carry used books, just antiquarian books.
On buying chef Jeremiah Tower’s collection
Occasionally yes, Jeremiah Tower or someone like him will say, will you buy my collection?
He had just sent me a description of what he had over email, we agreed on a price, and it was all in not-great shape. He had Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, it was stained and beaten up. If someone didn’t know it was as his, it wouldn’t get 10 cents at a garage sale.
I wrote back and said, can you send me some signed book plates? In the end, he was in town for the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, and just came in and signed them all, sitting in the back storage room.
I’ve still got a few straggling [items from his collection]. A line cook came in and really wanted one, and I said, just give me $45 for it.
On earning support from the community
I’m really lucky because San Francisco has the financial ability and the moral ability to understand that they’re subsidizing my store by paying full price for a book, in order for me not to be not a nail salon next time they walk by.
[At events] often times there’s food and drinks, and the space is really lovely, and in exchange, they’ll pay full price — they understand that deal. I never wanted people to support me just because I’m a local independent [business] ... I really wanted to offer back what I could to them.
How cookbooks are like albums
My partner gave me a really good talking point: She said, when you get recipes online, it’s like putting together a bunch of songs on Pandora that you like. But buying a cookbook, it’s like buying an album.
What’s really nice is you get to know and interact with an author... I feel like it’s good to know, this author... she under-salts more than I do, or she likes some things a little under-baked. Its’ nice to get to know the author you’re working with and their style.
The book she loves to sell the most?
The book I always love to sell people, my favorite is The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Her [Judy Rodgers] instructions in there are so poetic, yet concise. Her way to say how to cook something.... how it should smell or sound when it’s just about ready. There’s this great recipe for chicken braised with honey, figs, and vinegar, she talks about just how the sauce should look as it’s coming together. It almost teaches you how to use other cookbooks.
On what’s next for cookbooks
When I first came in, in 2008, it was all bacon all the time... Then people got into vegetables, and that’s great. The other thing that was happening in 2008 was people were doing the DIY stuff... but, not as many people are buying books about how to make chicken coops anymore.
Right now, there’s a big trend toward technique and flavor. People are thinking about how to add spices and flavor, they want to learn techniques to make up their own recipes [Yotam] Ottolenghi changed things and got us into Middle Eastern spices and flavors, and now we’re getting more into technique. I’m really curious to see where it’s going to go, but the technique thing is really important, because I think it’s almost going back in time, to a time when cookbooks, in 1900, would just say “make a batter,” and people would know what that meant.
The more I cook, the less I feel I need cookbooks, which I shouldn’t maybe say in my business.... once people understand technique and process, they’re empowered. They’re inspired to make their own food.
How cookbook authors are the next rockstar chefs
That [Ottolenghi] phase, which is still going on, really made fans of people who had never thought of cookbook authors as rockstars before. Chefs had been. The biggest event I ever had was the Castro theatre with Ferran Adrià — in 72 hours it sold out. It was crazy, all the professional chefs in SF came, it was incredible. When it was over, I thought, “unless Julia Child comes back from the dead, I’ll never have to do that again.”
Now I joke that I’m just going to rename the store the Ottolenghi book shop. He’s been to the store four times and every time he speaks it’s this massive crowd. Same with David Lebovitz. I suppose David is a blogger, and Ottolenghi, he’s a professional restaurateur. But the cookbooks excite people so much [because they felt] they needed to understand his personality.
Now it’s not just celebrity chefs — I used to have big events for Eric Ripert or Thomas Keller. But now, when you get a big crowd for Julia Turshen or Samin [Nosrat], you see that the people who are rockstars are cookbook authors, because they’re the ones who excite people to cook.
On sharing her love of books
[Before I opened Omnivore] I made a whole room that’s a library at home, and nobody cared about it — my wife thinks it’s pretty, but she doesn’t know why I’d pay so much for [a book]. My friends would come over and sort of ignore it.
Then, this person came to interview me about a book she was writing about a rare book thief, and when she really appreciated the collection, it filled me up. I thought, how can I replicate this?
It’s not an accident that the shelves I had built [at Omnivore] replicate the ones I have at home. I opened [Omnivore] and in fact, every day, I get to share this passion with people, about cookbooks, and older books, where my strongest passion lies. And it’s really wonderful to be able to see others get into it and excited about it, and they’re thrilled by the fact [the store] was a butcher shop at the turn of the century, and I’ll give them a tour of the old redwood-lined cooler.
I want to be the gateway drug for collectors — I want to get chefs excited about techniques of the past.