Books For Cooks, 233-235 Gertrude St, Fitzroy. Phone: 8415 1415
As someone who has come to love the online ease with which I can get my hands on music and books, and the information about them on which to base my buying, I have lamented the lack of bricks and mortar businesses in Melbourne that cater to my specific interests.
I have learned to live without them, though.
But in the form of Tim, at the splendid Fitzroy emporium Books For Cooks, I get a superb example of just why local, homegrown businesses should be encouraged whenever possible.
As well as looking to do a story for Consider The Sauce, I have driven across town with the notional purpose of buying a Lebanese or other Middle Eastern cookbook to fill a gap in my modest home collection.
I mention to Tim a particular book, one that is listed on the shop’s website but is not in stock.
He knows the book well. He informs me of its background and its virtues and drawbacks.
He’s not trying to dissuade me from buying it as such; it’s more like he’s trying to steer me towards a purchase that will suit my needs.
We go through the same routine with another book, this one covering Persian cooking.
In the end, and somewhat to my surprise, I end up buying The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos.
This makes all kinds of sense.
The book is the same size and in the same format, using the same typefaces, as Charmaine Solomon’s equivalent Asian tome.
As such, it will no doubt become a cherished asset and dependable companion in our home, and duly become dog-eared, sauce-spattered and loved a lot.
As well, my new book’s concept of “Middle East” stretches from Greece at one end to Afghanistan at the other.
So there you go – I’ve ended up with a book I can use and use often, and Tim has adroitly manoeuvred me away from the allure of those that had been seducing me with flash.
“We don’t aim to sell the book with the highest mark-up as a priority,” says Tim. “We want people to have a rewarding experience with the books they buy here.”
Helping me buy a book turns out to be just a small part of an engrossing hour of conversation as Tim gives generously of his time and insights.
Books For Cooks is in its 13th year, Tim and partner Amanda having bought the name and “some stock” from a couple of dears for whom it was a sideline to their Malvern East travel agency.
“We saw a tiny ad in The Age and ended up being the only ones interested in buying it,” Tim says. “There was no research … we bought it on credit cards – and then did a business plan.”
The seems scarcely believable to me, such is the detail Tim provides me on running the shop, the various inequities of the international postal system, the effects of the internet, the ongoing subject of a GST on online imports and much more.
He tells me about 10 per cent of the shops turnover is online but that 40 per cent comes from the custom of professional cooks.
For some reason this surprises me.
The current best-sellers are three books by Israeli-born, London-based Yotam Ottolengh - Ottolengh: The Coobook, Plenty and Jerusalem.
The shop will often stock two or three copies of a book – perhaps one will be secondhand, or another may be printed using a particular font.
Books For Cooks sources books from about 650 suppliers in England, the US, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Singapore, Japan, Canada and more.
There are at least two incoming shipments a week each from the US and the UK.
The main trade, of course, is in recipe books of many different kinds, vintages, sizes, styles, genres and nationalities.
But Books For Cooks also carries titles that cover biographies, history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, food science, humour, fiction, kitchen design, implements, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, health, etiquette and table settings.
And no doubt several more categories!
We even get around to discussing the merits (mostly Tim) and otherwise (mostly me) of MasterChef and its various offshoots.
But we end up in pretty much the same place anyway.
“Mostly I like peasant food,” Tim says. “It’s almost always brown …”
He definitely says that as if he believes it’s a good thing.
And which is why, within a few hours of getting it home, my new cookbook is prickly with stickies denoting my interest in recipes that are overwhelmingly to do with cabbage rolls, pulses of all sorts, hearty stews and simple salads.
Check out the Books For Cooks website here.