Talking books, business, and lots more with cookbook shop owner Clementine Thomas.
Baltimore — Washington, D.C.’s neighbor to the north — may hold the official distinction of being called Charm City. But as far as charm goes, D.C. cookbook shop Bold Fork Books brings it to the District in spades. Unpeeled talks cookbooks, comfort food, and going out of our comfort zones, with cookbook shop owner Clementine Thomas.
I don’t remember where I was or exactly what I was doing when I first read that a new bookstore devoted entirely to cookbooks had opened in Washington, D.C. But I do remember doing a happy dance and beelining it over to this new and magical land called Bold Fork Books.
I have a cookbook
problem collection. Maybe you are like me. For me, a cookbook is not just a block of recipes. Cookbooks are also memoir, travelogue, escapism, bedtime reading, teacher, friend, and a continual source of inspiration. (I get excited about fall cookbook season the way others may get excited about a Rolling Stones reunion tour.)
But you don’t have to be a serious cookbook fan to appreciate the specialness happening within the sunny storefront in D.C.’s aptly-named Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.
Clementine Thomas owns cookbook shop Bold Fork Books. Clementine, along with her husband, have cooked up one of the most special bookstores in the biz — and done it without prior bookselling experience. Below, I talk with Clementine about the business she’s building, and how it’s guided by a love of cooking, sense of community, chutzpah, and love.
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The Interview: Cookbook Shop Owner Clementine Thomas of Bold Fork Books
I wanted to start by asking why cookbooks are important, especially relative to where else we can source recipes, like online or in food magazines?
So actually, there’s a cookbook store in L.A. called Now Serving. I was reading an interview by one of the owners. And he said that going online to find a recipe is like when you have a song stuck in your head and you really just need to hear that song. But turning to a cookbook is like listening to the album beginning to end.
I think that cookbooks give us context, and there’s also so much beautiful storytelling that’s being done via cookbooks. I think people really respond to that, especially now. Having a trusted voice in the kitchen is all the more important when we’re all cooking from home a lot more.
And do you think there’s something to be said, too, about the fact that a cookbook is a tactile, tangible thing, unlike the internet?
Yes. That’s kind-of where my love comes from. We have a copy of Julia Child’s cookbook that’s now three generations old. It has my great aunt’s handwriting all over it. And so for me, as much as I love cooking out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it’s also this object that I really really love and reminds me of my family, and makes me feel rooted with my family history. Plus, I think people appreciate that so many cookbooks are beautifully designed.
When did you have the dream of having a cookbook store, and how did you develop the dream and translate it into brick and mortar reality?
The first time I ever walked into a cookbook store was years and years ago. I was in London for a wedding, and I remember having a magical experience browsing in this little cookbook store in Notting Hill, feeling like I could spend the entire day there.
Then about 10 years ago, my husband and I stumbled into Appetite for Books, a cookbook store in Montréal. At that point, we were both working in the restaurant industry. I was always a picky eater growing up, but all these books started cracking my world open a little bit, and allowing me to learn about different cuisines and expand my palate. I found the idea of a dedicated cookbook store so cool.
As my career grew in the restaurant world in D.C., I started thinking about the need for a space that would bring together the D.C. community of home cooks and restaurant professionals, food policy wonks, and so on. D.C.’s food scene has grown so much in the past decade. And I thought how wonderful it would be to have a hub to bring together all these disparate communities who share this love of food.
And then it actually happened! How did it happen, and why at this moment?
The idea of my own cookbook store was always a “down the road” dream for my husband and I. But I was at a point starting a year or two before the pandemic where I wanted to begin transitioning out of my role in a restaurant role. [Clementine and her husband are partners at Georgetown restaurant Chez Billy Sud.]
A mutual friend introduced me to the owners of Each Peach Market and Pear Plum Café. They wanted to activate the café space for the holiday season of 2019. So we came up with the idea of me curating a little selection of around 30 cookbooks.
Did you see that as a building block toward a bigger cookbook store?
I was nowhere near ready to begin writing a business plan. And I loved working in restaurants so much that even though it was time for me to leave, and I found it hard to let go of that part of my life. Especially since I was a part of building that restaurant.
The pop-up was just a way of testing out whether others were interested in cookbooks the way that I was. And the response was so positive. After the holidays, we continued to talk about how to continue our collaboration. And we came up with a lease sharing arrangement because they decided to close the café but keep the back running for kitchen operations.
So how did you learn to be a bookseller?
As far as learning about book selling, I feel like I learned about that after we opened. It is a really steep learning curve. I have been so lucky that others in the book selling community, whether other shop owners or publisher reps, are so wonderful and willing to answer the most basic of questions.
Like what kind of basic questions did you need answers to?
Oh, everything from: How do book discounts work? How do I even buy the books? Surely I don’t just go on Amazon. How do I manage my inventory?
There’s still so much I don’t know, but it’s been really interesting to come into the book world from the restaurant world. Now I’m learning the business side of the books I’ve always gravitated toward, and it’s so exciting, invigorating, and so fascinating. But you’re really just jumping into the deep end.
Even as you learn as you go how to run a cookbook shop, are there any skills that translated from your background in restaurants and hospitality?
For sure. The most obvious is the customer service part of it. With the cookbook store, even more than the retail aspect, I am trying to build a community space. I think my background in hospitality has helped, and hopefully makes people feel a part of a community and feel welcome. It’s my hope that one day soon people can just sit in the window seat and just spend a couple of hours browsing.
And then on the back end, there’s all the dealing with systems and inventory, and you deal with that in restaurants, too.
What makes a cookbook a good cookbook?
I think there’s so many different ways to make a good cookbook, and people respond to cookbooks differently. Sometimes people just want a recipe and a picture. But I truly respond to storytelling. So for me, that is the key.
I also think having a distinct point of view and a clear voice is very important in a cookbook. Especially now, when people are interested in the stories behind the cookbooks and the people who write them.
What feels hard about running your business?
It has been challenging learning a new industry. But I also think I’ve learned a lot about myself in this process. I’m sort-of a first-time entrepreneur, so I’d say learning to have confidence and believe that this little dream of mine can have a wider impact and is worth putting out there in the world.
Self promotion is hard, so learning to be my own biggest cheerleader is challenging. I am so grateful that others have cheered me on. It has given me permission to say, “Yeah, you know? This is a cool idea.”
Finding balance, too. The shop is still so new, so I’m figuring out: How do we grow? Am I going to be here all day, every day? How do I delegate? Now that we’ve found our sea legs, the more challenging question is about what comes next.
What has been the most rewarding part? What’s been great?
The dirty secret of the store is that I am not a particularly excellent or confident home cook. So I think that may be why I gravitate so much to cookbooks. They are like a safety net. So when I opened, I thought, “This is a thing I love and want to share it with people.” But I’m not an expert on cooking, so I wondered: Are people going to come in and be like, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about”?
But that hasn’t happened. Connecting with people has been so much fun. People are just so excited to connect over cookbooks. Watching this community starting to build, despite having to do so much virtually over the pandemic, has been the true reward. I can’t wait to start doing in-person events.
Don’t you think, though, that not being an expert home cook could almost be an asset? I think people may respond to love and passion more than any expertise. That’s what people may feel connected to.
That’s a really good way of thinking about it. I think love and passion are sometimes devalued, like earnestness is not necessarily a valued trait in business. So yeah, feeling as though my passion and love for this concept and these books have translated is really wonderful.
I wanted to finish with a couple speed round questions: What do you typically have for breakfast?
Coffee. By the time I get hungry, I have already left the house. I usually cave and get a pastry before lunch.
Other than turkey, there must be what on the Thanksgiving table?
In my family, we always do Brussels sprouts. My cousins and I all grew up nearby, so we always spent holidays together. The three of us were just extraordinarily picky eaters growing up — like, plain pasta with butter for years.
So our parents would always make us pie dough cookies because we would reject the actual pie with all the beautiful fillings. So we still do that, just make little plain cookies from pie dough.
The dish that feels like love to me is, what?
Boeuf bourguignon. It feels like a big hug. My father was French. It’s just comfort food. It’s time consuming but the ingredients are simple.
That, and a tarte tatin. My dad would make it. There was a year when he accidentally lit my cousin’s oven on fire because he tripled the amount of butter. My mom’s specialty was the boeuf bourguignon.