When Clementine Thomas walked into Montreal’s Appetite for Books, a bookstore that sells cookbooks and offers cooking classes, “everything kind of clicked.” She had always loved cookbooks. “It all started percolating then,” she says, “‘What if D.C. had its own space to bring together home cooks, professional cooks, and the authors that are exciting?’ It was like the retirement plan was, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll open this little cookbook store.’”
Some half decade later, her dream has become a reality in the form of Bold Fork Books, a culinary bookshop in Mount Pleasant. Prior to opening Bold Fork Books, Thomas, a D.C. native, worked in D.C. restaurants as a server, floor manager, general manager, and co-owner.
The timing couldn’t be better. Thousands of Washingtonians have hunkered in their homes and, willingly or not, become home cooks. City Paper sat down with Thomas to talk about what people are buying and cooking, opening a business in a pandemic, and gift giving.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Washington City Paper: Where did the idea for the store come from?
Clementine Thomas: I have had a lifelong love affair with cookbooks, just as objects. I grew up with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, just constantly open in my household. My father was French, so we just cooked out of it all the time.
It was a way to connect with my family, and a way to gain confidence in the kitchen. And then when I got out of college, I started working in restaurants. And so it became a way to learn more about the food I was serving, the food of the D.C. restaurant community. And yeah, I just began collecting them without even realizing that I was doing it.
Then last year, over the holidays, I was introduced to Emily and Jeanlouise, the owners of Each Peach [Market and] Pear Plum [Cafe]. They were looking for ways to activate a cafe space over the holidays, so I curated maybe about 10 titles for them. And even at that point, I think we felt really strongly that there was a real connection between our businesses, them with the market and me with this cookbook concept. So when the pandemic hit, and they closed the cafe, they invited me back over the summer to do a larger-scale pop-up. So I took over the space on the weekends with, at that point, I had about 100 titles. And that went really, really well. So when they decided to close cafe operations permanently, they reached out to me and we came up with this space sharing agreement, where I have the front of the space for the cookbook shop and then they’re maintaining their bakery operations in the back for the market.
WCP: What is your most dog-eared, stained, heavily loved cookbook?
CT: Definitely Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Especially right now, I just find myself turning to it over and over and over again. But my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is pretty battered at this point. And for me, my father being French, that really is my comfort food.
WCP: Cookbook sales had been rising pre-pandemic, and they have continued to rise during the pandemic. Who’s buying them?
CT: It’s home cooks, and home cooks of every skill level, interest level. That’s been one of the funnest things, is just seeing what kinds of books are selling. It’s really across the board. Probably the most popular ones are not the new, fancy books, but rather the Salt, Fat, Acid Heat, The Food Lab, the ones that are really about kind of cooking fundamentals.
WCP: How do you think that the pandemic has changed people’s relationship to food and home cooking?
CT: I think the way that the people are shopping for food and ingredients now has really impacted how people are cooking at home. It’s changed a little bit now. But at least at the beginning of the pandemic, it was like, you go to the grocery store and stock up for two weeks. So I find that it’s less project cooking or cooking from books where you have to go get all of these specialty ingredients. Instead, people are really interested in tried-and-true recipes that they know are going to work, that they can riff off of given the ingredients that they have in the house. It sort of right now seems to be really about kind of comfort food and simplicity.
WCP: Despite the fact that it was a pop-up—so you kind of knew that there was some appetite for this type of thing—and the fact that the trend for the industry has been good, did it feel like an economic risk to open a store in the middle of the pandemic?
CT: Yeah, for sure. The space sharing arrangement that we have with Each Peach/Pear Plum has really given us a degree of certainty. Sort of a safety net, almost. There’s no way that I could have taken on a full commercial lease right now.
And, you know, my thought going into this was, “If I can just scale up this pop-up and somehow see if it can just be self-sustaining, you know, then in the new year, we’ll see what happens with the pandemic and maybe we can grow in new ways.” And it’s truly exceeded my expectations. And so I feel really, really, really lucky.
WCP: What are your future plans for the store?
CT: Our grand plans post-pandemic are to open up those curtains [separating the bakery from the bookstore], do events, demos, tastings, author talks, and just really activate the space. And a really important piece to me was community, and building community, and having a space for community. So it’s been interesting trying to figure out how to build that when you can’t really gather in person. So I’m really looking forward to a time when we can do that.
WCP: How should we think about cookbooks? Like, are they books? Are they manuals? Are they something else?
CT: I think what has been really amazing about opening Bold Fork Books, having the space dedicated solely to culinary books as a category, is just discovering how much depth and breadth there is just within that realm of books. So I think the short answer is: They can be all of the above. They can be really practical. And they can be aspirational. They can tell you really incredible stories. They could be impossible to cook from—I have a couple of those in the shop—that are just fun to look at and think about and challenge you. That’s kind of the pleasure of culinary books. They can fit whatever mood you’re in.
WCP: What do food writing books add to the mix?
CT: They can add context. And they add just really incredible storytelling and voices. That’s also why bringing in food magazines was so important to me. I think the publishing world can be so restrictive, especially when it comes to who gets to publish cookbooks. So I think as you expand into food writing, whether it’s in book form, or magazine form, or online, you really start to open up to voices that you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to otherwise. And that’s another element of it that I really, really value and was important to me when thinking about who got to be represented in the store and on the shelves.
WCP: Because it’s holiday season and people are looking for gifts, what questions should a gift giver ask of themselves or the recipient before buying them a cookbook?
CT: I think knowing a little bit about what the recipient likes in the kitchen. I think sometimes we get blinded by the new, fancy, shiny cookbooks on the shelves (of which there’s some incredible new cookbooks out this season). But sometimes when you give that to someone, it can just be overwhelming or just collect dust on the shelf. So I think I think being a good listener and really trying to think about what they’re going to use and where their comfort level is in the kitchen. And what might challenge them.
Bold Fork Books, 3064 Mount Pleasant St. NW, boldforkbooks.com.