CHARLESTON, S.C. - Like any cookbook shop, Heirloom Book Co. stocks the latest volumes for accomplished cooks. Look closely at the shelves and you’ll also see “White Trash Cooking’’ (1986); a 1920s Kosher cookbook from the Manischewitz Company; and a Delta Air Lines pamphlet of Southern recipes that’s more than 30 years old.
Equal parts collectible shop, new-title showcase, and salon for cookbook lovers, Heirloom Book Co. opened in April and has become a sought-after resource ever since. In November, Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the seven best culinary book stores in the country. So many chefs and cookbook authors want to book events there that co-owners Brad Norton, Carlye Dougherty, and Bryan Lewis are adding a kitchen to accommodate them. At a time when cookbooks are in the same precarious position as the rest of publishing, Heirloom rides the wave of popular interest in all things culinary. “We opened a shop to do what we liked and hoped others would like it, too. It’s become more that what we expected,’’ says Dougherty.
Many of the books come from Norton’s own collection, so large that it was overtaking the offices of the wine and beer distributorship that he and Lewis also run. “I had 4,000 cookbooks in my office, the conference room, and my house. I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them all. My partner said, ‘This is a problem, we really need to open a store,’ ’’ Norton says. After discussing their idea with Dougherty, the three agreed to become business partners and signed a lease less than a month later.
They knew customers would come to buy cookbooks. What they didn’t foresee was the sense of community that quickly developed among Charleston’s food professionals and passionate home cooks. The crew from the latest television project of Charleston residents and cookbook authors Matt Lee and Ted Lee, recently came in to browse. The conversation continued so long that “a happy hour developed on the sofa,’’ says Dougherty. The Lee brothers occasionally come in, too. So does chef Sean Brock, 2010 winner of a James Beard Best Chef Southeast award, whose Husk restaurant is right around the corner.
On another day, Joshua Walker and Duolan Li of Xiao Bao Biscuit, a husband-wife team who serve their Southern-Asian comfort food at pop-ups and special events around town, come in. Walker thinks the store fills a niche for Charlestonians as well as tourists. “It seems strange to open a store when everyone goes to Amazon.com nowadays, but they have found a great way to introduce food and chefs that we have going here to people who are not from Charleston. It’s also great that they are doing events to get the radar up about local chefs,’’ Walker says.
“Tart Love’’ author Holly Herrick was recently on hand for a book signing. Monthly Sunday suppers give local chefs and restaurateurs, and authors including Nathalie Dupree and Virginia Willis, a chance to cook a full menu.
The spacious store, with a couch and coffee table up front, a large table in the middle, and light fixtures made from Chinese wire produce baskets, welcomes browsers. Shelves are organized by categories that include Southern cooking, Indian, Chinese, meat, and cheese. “Brad’s Picks’’ showcases some of Norton’s all-time favorite titles. Among them are New England-based author John Thorne’s “Pot on the Fire,’’ Angelo Pellegrini’s “The Unprejudiced Palate,’’ and “The Gift of Southern Cooking,’’ by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. Dougherty jokes that Norton is a “walking cookbook encyclopedia’’ because he can knowledgeably answer so many questions. A toy stove, complete with plastic food replicas, anchors a children’s section in the back.
The books on sale come from attics, yard sales, and customers. “We have people calling all the time asking us to take a look at their old cookbook and tell them what it’s worth. It’s a constant treasure hunt,’’ says Dougherty. The store does purchase some books from individuals.
Complementing the books is a display of a local artist’s photographs of food. Antique rolling pins and a few other old kitchen implements are also for sale, along with heirloom seeds. Behind the scenes, the three business partners are also at work on reissuing classic titles, such as “Recipes From the Olde Pink House, 1771’’ from Savannah.
After hours, locals rent the store for parties. “It’s a unique space for a dinner party. People like to be surrounded by books,’’ says Dougherty.
Heirloom Book Co., 123 King St., Charleston, S.C., 843-722-6377, www.heirloombookcompany.comClara Silverstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.