Heidi Lascelles first opened the doors of Books for Cooks 1983, and unlike many independent bookshops it is still standing and flourishing today, 28 years later. It is situated in Blenheim Crescent, a stone’s throw from the buzzing artisanal quarter of Portobello Road, but once you step inside, silence, peace and the warm fragrance of baking, roasting and frying reign supreme. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in Britain. Imagine a bookshop dedicated solely to many, many thousands of cookbooks. So many, in fact, there is no catalogue as new titles join the existing 8000 books or so on the shelves, and constant updating would be impossible. The world of food and drink publishing works fast, and it is still one of the most popular sectors of the publishing industry, worth £90 million per annum.
At the very end of the shop you can see a kitchen and café area, where Head Chef Clara Paul, who originally trained at Ballymalloe is testing recipes, cooking the books and planning the lunch time menus. She tells me that she looks for recipes that are simple to make and easily achievable by readers of all capabilities in their own home. She walks to the Portobello Road market to buy the ingredients for lunch, and on Tuesdays it is vegetarian day. She believes that the success of the shop is because cooking at home is now held in much higher regard than ever before:
“Especially because of the recession, people are staying in a lot more. We are all part of the “make do and mend” culture now. You can see it with young people too, we are getting younger customers coming in looking for ideas.”
And ideas are not something you are going to run out of in this bookshop. The two shop managers Rosie Hogg and Livvy Barry-Walsh show me how the books are divided into various ingredients, regions of the world, puddings, cakes, children’s cookery, seasons, nutrition, food history and their own personal favourites which are placed on the front tables. The Books for Cooks team also publishes its own series of recipe books, which feature an edited selection of the very best dishes they have cooked and eaten over the years.
The owners of the shop, Rosie Kindersley and Eric Treuille, created a number of cookery courses, demonstrations and workshops using a custom-made upstairs kitchen. The number of courses has grown since they began in 1995, and the new 2012 schedule features everything from Chinese food with Guo Yue to fresh pasta making with Ursula Ferrigno, Spanish tapas with Jennie Chandler, Lebanese food with Nada Saleh, bread making with Eric himself, sushi with Kimiko Barber, Sicilian food with Olivia Greco and seasonal and children’s cookery with Rosie and Clara.
Courses are extremely good value for money, mainly ranging from only £30 – £40, and some are hands-on so you may need to bring an apron. Eric owns a biodynamic vineyard in the south of France, and his red wine accompanies the tastings after the demonstrations.
There are also regular supper club events held on Wednesday evenings, when Eric and Clara cook a four course meal from one of the very latest cookbooks for just £25. Some cookbook publishers also use the shop for book signings or launch events.
And all of the above is, I think, what makes the shop stand out from all the competition. Just like Mr.B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath and the Whitehorse Bookshop in Marlborough, two of my local independent shops, they cannot fight the almighty Amazon on price. But where David can beat Goliath is by creating a community hub, serving coffees, providing a seating space for browsing and asking questions, organising events and drawing the customer away from the computer and into a warm, engaging, friendly atmosphere. Books can be sent by post all over the world.
Books for Cooks is a centre of excellence for learning and inspiring the many thousands of customers who walk through its doors every year. Cookery books are tactile, sensual, beautiful repositories of knowledge, information and escapism, which no mobile tablet could ever replace. And once you have finished your book browsing, learning and shopping here, within a few minutes you could be buying fish at Pescheria Mattiucci, earthenware plates from Ceramica Blu, bread, cheese charcuterie and cakes at Mr.Christian’s and wine from Jeroboams. Some new, some longstanding, all are Notting Hill foodie institutions.
Books for Cooks
4 Blenheim Crescent
London W11 1NN
Telephone: 0207 221 1992
Follow the team on twitter: @Booksforcooks