My obsession with books and magazines is one I happily indulge. Despite heaving shelves and artfully arranged piles at home, bookshops old and new continue to tempt me with their treasures. Chains hold no appeal – no warren of bookshelves to get lost in, no worthy advice – and with independent shops becoming ever more rare, a good bookshop is a thrilling find.
Independent magazines and vintage food books are my holy grail. And so on a recent trip to San Francisco I was elated to discover Omnivore, a small shop in the quiet Noe Valley neighbourhood selling new, antiquarian and collectable books on food and drink. Opened just over five years ago by rare-book specialist Celia Sack, it’s simply furnished so that the books steal the show. Warm and welcoming, it’s that wonderful cliché of a ramshackle book haven come true.
Sack is what makes Omnivore so special. Her discerning eye and thoughtful curation mean visitors leave with heavy bags. “The shop is unique because it reflects my personal tastes in new and rare cookbooks,” she explains. “I pick what I really love to stock my shelves and seeing customers respond positively is utterly satisfying.”
Although the latest hardbacks are always on display, antiquarian books are the real gems here. Everything from 19th-century agricultural guides (around $45-$250) to colourful 1950s Mexican cookbooks (around $60-$150) can be found on the shelves. Recipe books are key but volumes on food history, science and culture are equally represented, as are memoirs and culinary autobiographies, such as a signed first edition of MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me ($1,500), which was recently sold to a collector.
Occasional trips to England prove fruitful for rare finds, but in general Sack prefers to buy entire collections from people who are ready to sell. “I bought all of chef Jeremiah Tower’s library,” she says, “and some of food historian Alan Davidson’s collection. I also bought books from MFK Fisher’s personal collection from food writer Jeannette Ferrary. And I adore the Antiquarian Book Fair every other year in San Francisco.”
Despite being located in a more secluded part of the city, the shop bustles, especially when authors come to visit. Talks and tastings are always popular and many well-known chefs are loyal fans. “I enjoy letting them know about certain scarce books in their area of special interest,” says Sack, “such as a rare influential southern cookbook, from 1867, for Alabama chef Frank Stitt, a first edition of Escoffier for Thomas Keller or a group of early Hawaiian cookbooks for Alan Wong.”
My buying habits may be less extravagant than her top clientele, but Sack can still add me to her list of bookshop disciples.