Thursday, October 25, 2007

Find me now at the new Rabelais Books Blog.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Wake to Songbirds, Wake to Crows
photographs by Jonathan Levitt

This coming Friday, July 6th, we're opening our first exhibition at Rabelais, photographs by Jonathan Levitt. Levitt's two series of photographs explore cycles of dream and sustenance. "It was not long ago when people didn't leave. The stoves, the roast, the eggs and the yellow fat, the wool and the milk and the mutton. All breathing together." [from the artist's statement]. For more of the artist's statement and some images, check here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Life beyond the store

While the store occupies most of our time, we still make time for the important things like digging in the dirt, waiting for the appliance repairman and, occassionally, making new friends. This past week we put in extra time eating and drinking with some new folks, including a fantastic Portuguese meal and wines at the home of M. and B. and a needed relaxing evening at the farm of "The Goat People". They seem comfortable with the moniker, perhaps because they've spent the last year traveling the country to view goats in all circumstances. Margaret and Karl will be publishing a book on the subject this fall, and we can't wait to host a goat-centered event in their honor.

Around home we're still struggling to get the gardens up to speed, with the tomatos not in the ground. But new tomoto beds are almost ready, and the peas, young lettuces, radished and more seem to be doing just fine. I sifted what seemed like a ton of gravel into what will soon be a sunflower bed. With the barn red wall of the garage behind them, they should look great in late summer.

Friday, June 15, 2007

some interesting recent reading

Beyond the huge pile of books currently in reading rotation on the bed table, there's some interesting reading on these days. The Zagat's (of restaurant guide fame) have an op-ed in today's NYTimes about the dearth of real Chinese food in America, and predict a new age of tastes and techniques when real Chinese finally his our shores. Reason has a review of Barry Glassner's new debunking project, The Gospel of Food: Everything you Know About Food is Wrong. Glassner takes on various elements of the food industry, particularly nutritionists, who reduce food to an nutrient intake problem and dismiss the element of taste and the joy that can go with it.

Sushi's been getting alot of attention lately, with two books, Sasha Issenberg's Sushi Economy and Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish arriving on our shop tables simultaneously. Nick Tosches weighs in in Vanity Fair with a long, and characteristically muscular article.

Friday, June 08, 2007


A contemporary history of French bread, the way it is made, and the people who make it.
Steven Laurence Kaplan's new history of the decline, fall and rise of French bread is reviewed at length in the new issue of the Time Literary Supplement. The review itself is a good, quick introduction to the history of bread in France and to its decline due to the increasing industrialization of what is, in the end, almost an alchemical process. Kaplan's book concludes, “It is worth recalling, in the end, that good bread depends above all on the quality of the men and women who make it”. We'll have the new book in the shop at the end of next week.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Rabelais update

New things are flying at us fast and furious since we've opened. The shop is humming along now with new things arriving all the time. Initial frustrations with new book distributors have given way to regular reorders and new shipments. The press has generated solid interest in those outside the initial circle of highly motivated food professionals, and we're already getting to know our "regulars". We've been buying quite a bit: some older cookbooks here and there, a good number of boxes of quality recent items from someone in the middle of a move, and a solid mid-range library of wine books from New York.

On the trip to pick up the New York books, I visited my friend Dan and bought some terrific early titles, including a first edition of the seminal bread book, Le Parfait Boulanger, by Parmentier (1778). Parmentier's book is the first to reference the use of salt in the baking of bread, and also makes early notice of brewer's yeast.

We've added a few inscribed books recently as well, including books or pamphlets inscribed by Alexis Lichine, James Beard, Julia Child and Andre Simon.

Our bestseller continues to be Herve This' Molecular Gastronomy, a serious book which has given us a real sense of how serious our customers are. Another hot item has been Martin Picard's Au Pied du Cochon, perhaps the most aggressive assertion in cookbook form since Ferran Adria's El Bulli volumes.

Our first in-store event is coming up this weekend, an appearance by Nancy English, author of Chow Maine on the publication of the new, revised edition of this classic guide to food in Maine. Be there and meet her and get your new copy on Saturday, June 2nd, 1-3 pm.

Friday, April 27, 2007

thanks for the press!

Our first two weeks have been even better than planned, thanks to generous coverage from the Portland press and some independent bloggers. Our first mention was by the secretive author of the Portland Pssst, followed by local bartender and booze historian John Myers on his must-read local blog, The Thirstin' Howl (scroll down to 'When the Lord Closes a Door' for the story). Chris Busby's The Bollard wrote us up yesterday (click on the 'Briefs' button). We've also had a nice story by Avery Yale Kamila in the Maine Switch, and this week a profile of the shop by Jason Wilkins appeared in The Portland Phoenix. Wednesday morning, Nancy English, author of Chow Maine and The Coast of Maine, chatted freely about us on Steve Hirshon's morning show on WMPG. I'd also like to thank poet Robert Gibbons for a lovely prose poem he wrote after his first visit to Rabelais and which I hope to reporoduce here once I get his permission. Thanks all!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Rabelais is open!

Finally we've opened. Smack in the middle of two snow storms, two blackouts, the New York Book Fair, a quick appraisal job in New Mexico, and much more, we've managed to pull it together, tear down the brwon paper on the windows and let in the public. Initial response has been terrific, especially from Portland's professional food community. More news soon, but here are a few pictures.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Boston Book Fair Report

So I'm back from the first of what we hope will be a new annual Spring MARIAB book fair, held at the Bayside Exposition Center in Boston. It's a replacement for the old shows at the Cyclorama, and now managed by Marvin Getman who, in my opinion, did a solid job on a new event. The location is well out of the city proper, but the facility is more than adequate with excellent parking, easy access to 93, and a simple load in and load out. I was wary at first with the loads of paperwork and the union electricians, etc., that the venue would be inflexible and ridiculously expensive, but once inside, the hall and its employees were more than fine.

Marvin must have taken some flak for carpeting just a piece of the room (part of the antique dealer section), but he rightly answered the complaints by pointing out that he spent alot of money on marketing, and that more carpet meant less marketing, which would have meant fewer customers. The big question, and one over which which Marvin had no control was, "which customers?"

To me the problem with the show was the lack of knowledgable folks. You can't really market for this (well you can, but it requires a rather sophisticated operation). There were many bodies in the room, and they were happy to be there and interested in what they were seeing but it still requires, for the most part, an experienced collector to pull the trigger on a big purchase. How can we get these people in there? As usual, it's up to us individual dealer to reach out to our customer base and think of ways to pull them in. For some, that in itself appears to run counter to self-interest. Why share customers with other dealers? I can't answer that quickly, but I'll just say that I come down firmly on the side of getting them all in the room together.

These customers didn't show up for me. I spent most of Saturday worried that I was headed for a zero sales fair (something I haven't experienced much recently), and even after a few sales relieved some pressure, it was obvious that this was less than a break-even prospect for me. I was tempted, during at least one sale, to post a large board explaining some of the economics of books fair and bookselling in general. What do books cost me? How much do I spend just to be at the fair? How much will I sell overall? And finally, why the customer who expects a 50% discount is a schmuck. I've always been willing to bargain a bit, and offer to work with a customer on payment, or price. I find it a natural part of the business. But the discounts people ask for these days are ridiculous. Try asking your doctor for a discount, or almost anyone else you deal with on a daily basis. You'd be embarassed. So why do it with booksellers? I won't go into details about how this fair reinforced my feelings that Russians should return to the other side of the wall until they learn some damn manners, but until someone shows me an exception to the abominable behavior (leaving the wonderful Alex K. out of this), I'll stick to my stereotype.

So much for the selling. The buying at this fair was very good, and if we weren't running up against our new shop opening in two weeks or so, I would have bought much more. I found good things to buy from Kevin Ransom (including a neat book on asparagus), Steve Schuyler (important new item for the reference collection), D.T. Pendleton (another reference work), Peter Stern (terrific early history of beer and brewing), Brattle Books (cookbooks) and best of all, a big haul of cookbooks in very nice condition from Dan Dwyer of Johnnycake Books. These are just beautiful examples of a cross section of books from the 40s-60s. There were so many other nice things to buy...

So this was a fair to build on. And I see no reason, with some help from the dealers themselves, and a bit of tweaking here or there, that this couldn't become a very good fair.

Monday, March 12, 2007

rabelais under construction

So our space for the new shop is under construction, although it's been a great deal easier than our house renovation last year. For the shop, we've only had to remove some plumbing (it was previously a hair salon), demolish two small dividing walls, pull up the floor, move the track lighting and paint the ceiling. Now we're ready to replace the baseboard moldings, treat the walls, and have the new floor installed. Then we can think about shelves!

Actually, the shelves are well under way at remote locations, so I'm hoping we will just bring them in finished and clean, and away we go. Of course it won't be so simple, but we're looking forward to a clean working space again. Our home is another story, where all of the many, many cases of used and rare books we've been purchasing for the space are piling up in every room. We've had to clean, price, and mylar over a thousand titles recently, and this is not something to do at home. The new titles will be arriving directly from publishers and distributors, an act which will undoubtedly endear us to the UPS man.

We still plan our soft opening for mid-April, and at this point, I see no reason that won't happen. Wish us luck.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

our new project: Rabelais

So we're opening a bookshop in Portland, ME. Samantha and I have both been pondering the 'what next?' question for some time. We both like what we do, but wanted a different platform from which to do it. Before we moved from Brooklyn to Maine, Samantha left behind her photo editor job to attend the Institute for Culinary Education and earned a degree in Pastry Arts, but the wear and tear on cooks is great, and the pay just so so. I've been happy with my private bookselling business, but feel the need for more contact with customers, and also believe that there should be more outlets for new people to learn about book collecting.

My specialities have always been in the arts and modern thought: design, philosophy, architecture, photography and the like. But we've been collecting food and wine books for some time now, and Portland is a terrific town for eating and drinking. So our new shop will focus on gastronomy and its related pursuits. It's named Rabelais, after the French Renaissance creator of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and inventor (along with Cervantes) of the novel. We'll carry new, out-of-print and rare books to offer a more complete selection, and hopefully, to introduce the ordinary cookbook buyer to collecting. The subjects will range from haute cuisine to hamburgers, with rare copies of classics from the masters including Escoffier, Julia Child, MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, James Beard, Curnonsky, AJ Liebling, etc. Selections of books on
oysters, mushrooms, heirloom herbs, organic growing, and of course wine, will all be present.

There will also be a selection of rare books in the fields I've worked in in the past, especially photography and modern design. And we have an area designated for small exhibitions of photographs, prints, and other art, much of it food related.

We plan to open in April if we can complete the design and buildout of the store. The shop will be located near the Old Port in Portland, on Middle Street next to Rob Evans' great restaurant Hugo's. The block is also home to many other restaurants, including The PepperClub, Norm's, Ribolita, and Duck Fat and is very nearby Micucci's wonderful Italian grocery, Sam Heyward's Fore Street and the piers for Island ferrys and cruise ships. In the meantime, you can check back here for progress reports, or peruse our nascent website:

We're open to suggestions, and always looking to buy good single items or collections in the areas mentioned above.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"How I Met My Wife" by Jack Winter

"It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.

I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it since I was travelling cognito.

Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn't be peccable.

Only toward and heard-of behaviour would do. Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim.

I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion. So I decided not to risk it.

But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads and tails of. I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen.

Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated as if this were something I was great shakes at, and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times.

So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings. Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous.

Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d'oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myself. She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savoury character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. "What a perfect nomer," I said advertently.

The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal.

We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it. "

The New Yorker (July 25, 1994)

Jack Winter sleeps

A wonderful and enigmatic personality has left us. The NY Times obit for comedy writer, world traveler, playwright and frog collector Jack Winter spells it out.

Monday, January 08, 2007

a visit to Papermania

This Saturday, Samantha and I made the three hour drive from Maine to Hartford, CT to attend the giant ephemera fair called Papermania. We got there a bit after opening, but spent the entire day browsing through booths piled high with unusual items: books, prints, photographs, advertising art and postcards. In the end, we bought two big bags of items, and could have spent even more time there. There were lots of friends and colleagues both exhibiting and in attendance as purchasers, and it was a pleasure to meet some dealers we haven't previously seen on the book fair circuit. I have to say, though, that also there were some of the strangest dealers I have yet to meet. First there were the three (count 'em) dealers who had no business cards or other info about their businesses and were unwilling to give out info otherwise. Then there was the dealer with an original drawing by an interesting artist, who had no price. Was it his item? "Yes." Is it for sale? "Yes." What's the price? "I don't know." This pattern was repeated later in the show with a dealer who had a notice about an important and expensive book taped up in his booth. Is it for sale? "Yes." How much? "I don't know." Are you intending to sell it? "Yes, but I need to find a rich man to buy it." We'll you're not going to find him this way. Finalyl there was the dealer gone AWOL. I myself am guilty of leaving my booth to browse a fair or seek some sustenance, but I found myself in a booth, books in hand, ready to buy. The dealer was missing - fine. I checked with the neighbors and was told that they had gone to a basketball game(?). I returned an hour and two hours later and found an empty booth. My selection of books remained on the folding chair, with my business card tucked inside. No dealer (and no call on the phone by today). Is there any wonder that booksellers are going out of business? Of course, these situations were frustrating, but still unusual examples of my interactions with the dealers at Papermania. And I'll be back there again next show.