I love it when I leave a bookstore feeling ravenous and inspired. It means I’ve found a cache of great cookbooks—a place I can get lost dreaming about my culinary potential, admiring the creativity of the world’s best chefs, and planning my next ten meals. Cookbook junkies like me are especially at home in Boston. The combination of a lively dining scene and a brainy community has resulted in a handful of stores tailor-made for us bookish food lovers. I made it my duty to find the best of the best—the shops with the most unique, vast, or thoughtful collections. I explored 17 stores in the city and surrounding towns, hitting up bookstores, kitchen shops, and boutiques. Below are the five destinations I believe will delight even the most casual cookbook admirer.
Stir. Stepping into Stir, I thought I’d opened a door into someone’s dinner prep. To my right, chefs were chopping. Immediately in front of me, folks were brainstorming and planning. Certain I was in the wrong place, I mumbled something like, “I’m sorry – I thought – Can I browse the cookbooks?” “Sure!” Everyone welcomed me and pointed to the left wall of the room, which was lined floor to ceiling in books. They offered help, but I was happy to lose myself in the titles. The staff went back to their cooking and chatting and I gathered that this was perfectly normal at Stir. The shop is part of Barbara Lynch Gruppo, the entity that owns and manages Barbara Lynch’s successful family of Boston restaurants. Stir is part cookbook shop and part demonstration kitchen, designed to provide an environment of education for all skill levels. Although shelf space is limited at Stir, the collection is an impressive mix of new and classic titles. According to Johnny Siever, the book buyer for Barbara Lynch Gruppo (also known as “Johnny Cookbooks”), the goal is to offer books with content that fits with Stir’s goal of education. He explained that new titles are “assessed against current trends, topics employees and customers are asking about or are pursuing. We also aim to carry books that other stores may not have and books by local chefs that share our love of food and learning.” The selection process is collaborative, involving Stir staff, others from Barbara Lynch Gruppo, and even Lynch herself. Knowing the books have been so thoughtfully curated adds a layer of interest to each title. I felt like I was in a friend’s kitchen, nosing through her cookbook shelf while she made dinner in the background (the chefs cooking shallots in butter on the other side of the kitchen really helped the fantasy). That sense of homeyness was deliberate, as Stir is modeled after Lynch’s personal kitchen, though Siever says Lynch’s cookbook collection is even bigger than Stir’s, totaling more than 1,000 books. Lynch had the idea for Stir while she was working on her cookbook by the same name (Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition). She created the comfortable, familiar place to test recipes. Like being among friends, if you’re curious about why a book is on the shelf, you absolutely should ask. As Siever noted, “everyone at Stir loves cookbooks so they are always willing to talk about them or make a few recommendations.”
Stir, 102 Waltham Street, Boston, MA 02118
Farm and Fable. I first noticed Farm and Fable after an exquisite dinner at Coppa. High on ricotta gnocchi and tiramisu, I floated across the street to get a closer look at the darkened shop. I peered in, finding books mixed with stylish housewares. I almost fell over when I realized the books on display were vintage cookbooks. I pressed my face to the window, straining to read the titles. As my husband dragged me to the waiting cab, I made a mental note to return. When I came back, I was just as excited by the store. I browsed my way through the front section, admiring the tasteful displays of “vintage and heirloom quality” dining and kitchen items, trying not to race to the built-in bookshelves along the back wall. There, beneath a row of antique hand-crank egg beaters, were rows of gently used cookbooks from bygone eras. The books were arranged with their covers facing out, just begging to be flipped through. Some were classics (Clementine in the Kitchen), some were cute (Sour Cream Cookery), and some were funny (a Domino Sugar diet cookbook). Beneath the old books were a few rows of hot contemporary titles, including Roberta’s Cookbook, Manresa, and Ottolenghi, among others. Overall, the collection was small, but rather than disappoint, it left me wanting more. A shopper would be rewarded by frequent return trips to see what titles will rotate on these shelves. If the books and housewares aren’t enough to satisfy a curious cook, Farm and Fable also opens its lower level for a monthly cookbook club and various cooking classes.
Farm and Fable, 251 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, MA 02118
New England Mobile Book Fair. Creaking through the New England Mobile Book Fair’s warehouse, I was just about to ask for help when I spotted a sign in Fiction: “COOKBOOKS are in AISLES 35A-38A.” It was my first clue that this was a place where other cookbook pilgrims had ventured. When I made it to aisles 35A, 36A, 37A, and 38A, I could barely take it all in. I tried to read all of the handwritten dividers marking the beginning of each new category: Salads, Sandwiches, Preserving, Pressure Cooking, etc. Looking to the right and left, up and down was making me dizzy and giddy. This is the place to go if you want to be wowed by the sheer volume of cookbooks on offer. The New England Mobile Book Fair (which is not mobile or a fair) is well known among area bibliophiles for its enormous selection of books of all genres. The cookbook selection is possibly the largest I’ve ever seen (Powell’s in Portland, OR, is the only other store I’ve visited that seems on par). I could’ve spent days there, not only enjoying the selection of brand new books, but searching for titles from a few years ago that have fallen off the radar. Diane Thomson, the buyer for cookbooks, works with publishers and book representatives to keep the shelves stocked. She confirmed what I suspected, which is that other customers find the collection “extensive,” to say the least. After perusing the shelves of new cookbooks, indefatigable cookbook lovers will find even more to browse in the “new books at bargain prices” section. The bargain section didn’t have as many titles, but it was still surprisingly large. They had a few well-known cookbooks and memoirs, but the collection is best suited for those willing to take an inexpensive gamble on a lesser known book or author.
New England Mobile Book Fair, 82 Needham Street, Newton Highlands, MA 02461
Harvard Book Store: The used section of the Harvard Book Store put me on edge. There were so many excellent titles that I couldn’t browse the rows fast enough. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, worried some other cookbook lover was going to sneak up behind me and nab a great steal before I’d found it. Unlike the used sections of many other stores, where the collections are clogged with microwave cookery and Food Network surplus, the used section at the Harvard Book Store is relevant and rich. The quality of the books is due to the discerning tastes of the Cambridge community, according to head buyer Rachel Cass. It’s the locals “who buy and then sell back an interesting and vibrant selection of cookbooks,” Cass explained. On my last visit, some of those interesting titles included Brassicas, a 2014 book on kale and its ilk that I had seen on display in other shops around town. They also had a wealth of classics, including Cooking with Marion Cunningham, Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, and so many others. On the main level of the store, one finds no relief from temptation among the new cookbooks. There’s an attention-grabbing display of notable new books and a meaty main section with an inspiring range of classic and contemporary titles. “Cambridge is a community with a lot of great restaurants and a lot of people interested in good cookbooks…[W]e buy the books our customers are interested in,” Cass explained. She also gave credit to the many staff members who love food and keep tabs on noteworthy chefs and trends. As if the cookbooks weren’t enticing enough, there’s also a particularly large section of food literature including food memoirs, historical texts, and other not-quite-cookbooks.
Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambrige, MA 02138
Brookline Booksmith. I arrived at Brookline Booksmith on a blindingly bright summer day. As my eyes adjusted from the outdoor glare to the reader-friendly bookstore lighting, I was surprised that cookbooks were the first thing I saw. Usually, cookbooks are tucked deep behind other genres, but here, they were right up front. The placement is a reflection of customers’ increasing interest in food books, according to owner and co-manager Dana Brigham. She explained that cookbooks are “a growing section for us with all the interest in local, ethnic, healthy” cooking. The section is beautifully arranged. Many books face outward and I had to pinch myself when I realized I was coveting bright yellow and green books about vegetables (I’m usually drawn straight to baking books). I followed the shelves to the magentas and blues of the international section and across to the warm earthtones of the general cooking and dessert books. It was impossible not to pull titles from the shelves—I found many familiar names and a few intriguing lesser-known authors. The well-rounded collection is a product of Brookline Booksmith’s research on local authors and other trusted cookbook names as well as local and national food trends. As Brigham pointed out, it helps that “[q]uite a few foodies work here, too.” A display the shop calls “the kitchen table” is set up next to the cookbooks to show off a playful collection of thematic food books and culinary tchotchkes. Don’t miss the used cookbook section on the lower level. It’s a small, smart collection with many gems. When I last visited, there were titles from Nigela Lawson, the Lee brothers, and a copy of LaRousse Gastronomique, among other good finds. It was here that I made my only book purchase in this painfully tempting research process: a mint condition Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres, circa 1984. Ten dollars for classic recipes and classic photos of the classic domestic goddess was too good to pass up.
Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA 02446