Around the Table: Bookseller Chat

This month on Around the Table, I am chatting with Don Lindgren, founder of Rabelais Inc., Fine Books on Food & Drink, located in Biddeford, Maine. Don has curated one of the largest selections of rare and out-of-print cookbooks in the United States at Rabelais, along with other food and drink materials including manuscripts, menus, prints, photographs, and other ephemera. Items sold at Rabelais date from the sixteenth century to the present.

Interior of Rabelais Books. Photo by Rabelais Inc.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat! First, could you tell us how you got involved in the antiquarian culinary book trade?

I started in working in bookshops while still in high school in the late 1970s. When I arrived at college, I sought a job in a bookshop and stumbled into the Chicago Powell’s (the original!) where I was “educated” in an excellent scholarly used and rare shop. For the next twenty years I plodded my way up the ladder of the antiquarian trade, but never dealing with culinary materials. My field was always modern thought, which included philosophy, psychology, social theory, etc., as well as modern art, design, and architecture. My more narrow specialty was historical avant-gardism and the little magazines. It wasn’t until my wife (at the time), Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, and I moved to Maine that the idea of food and drink as our specialty arose. Samantha was a pastry cook at the time; we put the books and food together, and voila!

You handle a wide range of books on food and drink. How do you acquire your inventory? Could you share any interesting places you have found books?

Champignons de l’Ain, a manuscript study of the mycology of the Rhone-Alpes region, with forty-nine original watercolors of mushrooms (circa 1870). Photo by Greta Rybus.

I am interested in any type of material that is part of the wider world of food and drink culture, that includes cookbooks, but also books on subjects like wild foods and foraging, distilling, the history of packaging, food art, etc. Not just printed books, but also manuscript cookery books, and ephemera of all sorts that is part of food culture (menus, trade cards, advertising art, trade catalogues, etc.). My inventory comes from all of the various sources booksellers use: online listings, auctions, book scouts, book fairs, other, non-specialized booksellers, etc. My preferred type of purchase is a large collection from a seasoned collector, which is where I am most likely to run across books I have never seen before. Great books can be found everywhere; I once purchased a number of rare Elizabethan cookbooks from a small dealer in the Catskills. The books had come out of a private home along with other, mostly unremarkable books. 

Tell us a bit about the sale of books at your shop. How do you develop relationships with your customers and how do you know what books to match to their needs, budget, etc.? How much of your business is with institutional collections compared to private collectors?

I love selling books in the shop, because I can have a real conversation with the client. And best of all I can put a special item in their hands and see them react to holding something that might be a true piece of history, or just react to the materiality of it. But only a small percentage of my sales (less than 5%) occur in the shop. And 10% cover all sales in the shop and through online listings. The other 90% is what I’d call private client business—clients who know us and we know them. It’s a small number of individuals and institutions (about 50/50 institutions to private collectors) that make up the bulk of the sales. I like selling to both, but not just because I need sales from both to keep the business going. Institutions buy a broader range of materials, looking for subject quality, specific collections, archives, and other materials that contain a wider historical narrative. 

Athenaeus Naucratites; Bedrott, Jakob. Athenaiou Deipnosophiston biblia pentekaideka. Athenaei Dipnosophistarvm, hoc est argute sciteque conuiuio disserentum. Lib. XV, quibus nunc quantum operae ac diligentiae adhibitum sit satis fiedei erit. Basileae: Joannes Valderus, 1535. Photo by Knack Factory.

What is your process for researching, cataloguing, and pricing your inventory?

By choice I am definitely a “scholarly bookseller” even though most people don’t think of cookery, or even food history, as a particularly scholarly subject. I have a very large library of food history reference materials (over 2000 volumes) and another library of reference books on bibliography and book history (about the same size) and I use the collections as well as online sources in my daily research. The degree of detail in my cataloguing depends on the nature of the item. A well-known book, even if rare, doesn’t necessarily need the level of detail required by a less famous, but unrecognized, work. My cataloguing of early community cookbooks, for example, is extremely detailed, as almost no one has given the genre the attention it deserves. Pricing is complex and depends a great deal on the type of book: How common is it in today’s marketplace? Does it have relevant auction records? And do I have a client in mind for it? Examples of my detailed cataloguing can be found in the linked pdfs in the next response.

What are some of your favorite items you have carried in Rabelais Books over the years?

Hmmm. A tough one… but here goes.

  • An immaculate copy of Irma Rombauer’s original self-published Joy of Cooking (1931), in a pristine dust jacket, likely the best copy in existence. 

Thank you, Don, for chatting about Rabelais and the antiquarian culinary book trade! You can find Rabelais Books on Facebook @RabelaisBooks and Instagram @rabelaisbooks. If you would like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.