Cook's Library's upcoming closure has chefs mourning a community loss
By By Russ Parsons
Mar 25, 2009 | 12:00 AM
When Lucques and AOC chef Suzanne Goin got the news that Los Angeles landmark Cook's Library was going to close, she sounded close to tears. "Noooo," she said, "that's the most horrible thing I've heard. Oh my God, the world is coming to an end."
If that sounds a little over the top, you've probably never been to Cook's Library. The nearly 20-year-old shop on West 3rd Street near the Beverly Center is one of the few stores in the United States devoted strictly to cookbooks. But for many of its customers, it has been more than a place to pop in and buy a book. It has been a place to connect with a whole community of food lovers that includes well-known chefs, passionate home cooks and those who are just starting out.
The staff has always been knowledgeable and well-read. Bring up any book, no matter how obscure, and there is a good chance manager Tim Fischer or owner Ellen Rose can tell you about it. And if you have wanted to investigate on your own, you've always been welcome to plop down on the sofa and browse through a stack of possibilities.
"It was just the most amazing resource and center for people who love food and care about cookbooks," Goin said. "It was a place you could just go in and browse and sit for hours."
That comfortable feeling is by design. From the very start, Rose said, the goal has been to have "the best selection of books from all over the world, but also to be a community bookstore. A lot of the staff have been here for years and years. We're a family."
But last week, Rose announced that the store will be closing April 30, almost exactly 20 years from the day she opened it, done in by a combination of the economic downturn and competition from chains and online booksellers.
"We had a couple of wonderful years and then Barnes & Noble came in and then Amazon came in," she said. "Sales went down and over the years I've never been able to raise them. They reached a certain point and even though we tried very hard we couldn't get them higher.
"I finally made the decision last week, but it's just been inevitable," she said.
"Sales have been sliding. The economy is terrible. The Internet is as active as it has ever been; we'd work with someone for 30 minutes talking about books, and afterward they would ask if we could write down the books and authors and you'd just know they were going to buy it on the Internet. But we're very proud of what we did.
"I wish we could be open another 20 years. But as you know in the last 20 years, we've probably lost more than 50% of the bookstores in the U.S."
While even the biggest chain bookstores stock only the most recently released cookbooks, Cook's Library has made it a point of pride to sell what others don't -- worthy books from past seasons, overlooked gems and even books that aren't published in the United States.
Indeed, for many, the store's main draw has been its constantly refreshing selection of top-drawer books from Spain and France, including some that sell for hundreds of dollars. If you wanted a copy of Ferran Adria's slip-covered books on his Spanish restaurant El Bulli or a monumental tome such as Alain Ducasse's "Grand Livre de Cuisine" (more than 1,000 pages for $250), Cook's Library has been one of the few stores in the country that carries them.
This is what has drawn many chefs to the store. Kerry Simon, chef at nearby Simon L.A., said: "Oh man, I am totally bummed out. I always spend a lot of money there. That's one of my big outings when I'm in L.A. I buy everything."
Though Goin's taste in books is more mainstream, she appreciated the import section when shopping for her husband, Hungry Cat chef David Lentz. "I used to go and buy all of David's Christmas presents there," Goin said. "He's always really on the ball about what new books are coming out of France and all, but I could go there and they'd have a copy of the new Michel Bras book before he even knew about it."
Cook's Library also is well-known for its author events, including book signings where staff members frequently bring samples cooked using recipes in the book. Among the many authors who have signed books are Adria, Bazaar's José Andrés, French Laundry's Thomas Keller, Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert and Chez Panisse's Alice Waters.
But all of that will soon be over. Starting this week, Rose says she'll be selling off the remaining stock, first at 20% off, then at a progressively larger discount until everything is gone.
Goin says it's a loss that will affect anyone in Southern California who loves good food. "That place is part of the landscape," she says. "It's such a charming part of the community . . . one of those places that kind of makes L.A. L.A."