Celia Sack of SF’s Omnivore Books: a Beautiful, Handsome Mind

Celia shows off two friends, her labeagle, Jolene, named after the Dolly Parton song, and her small friend Truxton.

If the reason we’re here in the world is to connect with each other, and I say it is the reason, and the best way we have to get through to each other is language, then I posit here that language is, at its best, inefficient. There often remains a gap between what we are attempting to express, and what reaches the audience of our intent. And within this chasm, we then capitulate, abandon language. We turn to paintbrushes, dance, the rise and fall of melody. We embrace other ways to try to connect or converse. We try the spare elegance of charcoal drawings, a chorus in sound, chanting, colored pies and bar graphs, tricky cameras,  smoke signals. We wrestle and box, we yell, we laugh, we make out furiously, we swim, we sweat, and still, as often as not, we fail. And yet the unsinkable attempts rise up to connect with one another, and in that gap we eat, and we write it down. Celia Sack is a purveyor and an archivist of these attempts. Also, she appreciates pajamas.

I visited this week’s hero in her home, where together we found a Very Important Quirk about my new camera. The machine tells you with its little illustration that its battery is full, yet after the flash of that full battery on the screen, the thing closes up shop, folds away its lens and forbids you to capture a thing. It will not let you photograph the encaustic in beeswax of five floating fighters in the living room. It refuses to help you share the image of a perfect orange coffee cup on a hearty kitchen table, the handmade boots from the shop in North Beach, the softest pajama top in the world from J. Crew, tumbled over and over in a dryer. The thing was so overwhelming the way it gave off the stink of home, I buried my nose in it right there at the kitchen table, a woman with a stranger on an interview assignment with a failed camera, jacked up on embarrassment and caffeine, querying about what brand of fabric softener.

There is the massive wood sign off the kitchen she tied to the top of her car and lugged home after screeching to the side of the road at a makeshift melon stand, panting at the sight of it. The plywood split itself into red and yellow screaming WATERMEL-ONS. She offered the guy a hundred bucks for the thing and carted it off. I forgot to ask if she got any fruit at all. I can’t show you that either. What I did not forget, but what will certainly fall into the gap of our ability to connect here, is the beauty and magic of her library. Anyhow, I’m going to try and make it up to you and show you the next best thing. The place her library gave way to: her home away from home, her public retail library of sorts, Omnivore Books.

We are much too special and pretty to be relegated to old timer darkness. We wear white!

As you can see from the opening photo , there is a lot to fit into the place. In the photo directly above, the first classy thing you might notice is the vintage Chinese Cookbook. But really what I’m showing you here is the impeccable white shelving. Omnivore is a small room, teeming with volumes of culinary adventures, instructions, excursions and meditations. Everything is organized by topic, not author or era. You’ll find vintage volumes mixed in with books still smelling of wet ink. With so much crammed into such a modest store front, the white shelves take an overwhelming site and transform it into a symphony. And as such, I confessed to Celia, the first time I made my way in a couple years ago, I found myself slack jawed, alone, mouth agape, walloped with a sense of the divine in Noe Valley of all places, a veritable stronghold of the undaring and dowdy, a surprising sting making its way to the backs of my eyes.

Now, I like an old library look, that handsomeness of wood four times my age and librarians close to that as well. I like the pull chains of desk lamps and the creak of an old swivel chair. But something about the light in this room, something about the butter yellow walls and the white shelves, the whole design of the place bespeaks its mission: these are the volumes that will enhance your life. And Celia presides over them in that same sense of new handsome. An approachable handsome. A Handsome of Relating. She really looks at you when she speaks of the sacred objects. Cradling a first edition in one hand, she cocks her head sideways while the other hand pulls itself away to curl into a fist, “You have to RESPECT books,” she says, moving the fist toward her chest. And she means it in a way of life kind of way. An ethic. This is a place of inquiry and discussion, part studious and part fete. Inherent is not only undertaking of the act of eating, and its attending options, but also the love of the objects here to instruct preparation for this event. You can touch things here. You should touch things here. There is no hint of the snooty vibe of an upscale foodie haunt, born of a town that hosts a billion of them. Oh,

Settle down, Beavis. I’m not talking about you. And if you think I am, well then maybe look at that for a minute.

Anyhow, the shelves are lifted, customized actually, to mimic the shelves from Celia’s home library which is wall to wall antique amazingness. Something about it takes the austerity from the endeavor, those old dark hallowed crypts lined in oak and smelling of pipes and bearded men. The place says: Yes, you! Come on in. You can cook. It’s fun!

And a nice drink to wash it down.

The bookstore looks and feels exactly like it is to talk to Celia. She laughs easily, honestly, makes you want to stroll around her brain hiking on the trails of stories and recipes. She grew up here in San Francisco, without you, left for a second to go to school at Sarah Lawrence and work at Christie’s while she studied. The auction house. Yeah, THAT Christie’s. She came back home and got work at an auction house here. It was solitary work, intellectual all frontal lobe. And you weren’t there for that either. That was followed by many years of dog walking, opening a pet store, and then finally Omnivore. From the entirely solitary and brainiac to the utterly visceral and animal, and now, kerplunk, all of it under one roof. And she has managed to take everything she’s learned, and put it all into the store. The books. The systems. The storytelling. The light. The cooking. And you. You can just go there and talk to her. She is a CONVERSATIONALIST, for crying out loud. And that people, is stylish.

Come into the light, Carol Ann.

Oh, right, the cooking. “Who taught you how to cook?” I ask. She thinks about it for a second, absentmindedly rubs her chin as all sages do. “Not my mother. We fought all through high school. I wasn’t in her kitchen. I’m self-taught, I guess. It was really out of a sense of survival where it began. Then over time, I just got more and more interested.” And that’s how the cooking still happens. She starts with an ingredient. The other day it was padron peppers at Bi-Rite Market, which then led her to lamb chops. Or she’ll peruse a book and riff off something in it, like a bass player in some basement jam session, man. It’s a bonus if the recipe outcome leads her to her Le Creuset roasting pan, which is her favorite thing to cook in. It’s probably also nice to drain something in that enamel colander she has with ducks on it that I can’t show you. But it’s really nice.

Her first cookbook, Cucina Rustica, was from this series

These things are the essence of Celia’s style. I can hear her talking to customers in the store and it’s like she’s read everything everywhere. She can make connections that mean something to every person who talks to her. Whether they have come back from traveling and want to create a dish that sends them back to their vacation around their kitchen table, or they are looking to throw an enormous party to forget that this year maybe they don’t get to have a vacation. So this party will be the escape, where surely the guests will drink a little too much, say a good deal too much, and maybe relax from the pace of life long enough to eat a little less quickly this time. She’ll know just what they need.

It makes me wish she was wearing the pajama top a little bit. Although I do find one of the worst things a person can do is wear their pajamas to an actual place beyond the front yard, but, here, it feels right somehow. Like that’s exactly where you are, in Celia’s yard and you have walked through a gate painted years ago in a nice red, a little bit cracked from the seasons. It’s been roasted in the sun and basted by the rain. She’s there gardening, mismatched pants and a shirt (she says that’s the real trick to making pajamas work. You CANNOT be wearing a matched set. This is where having a house in the country comes in handy because you can break up your sets easily. Note to self: secure house in the country), collecting eggs from the chickens and filling a basket with squash.

She will tell you to pick something up from Mark Bittman, who really is a good teacher, or if you want a local legend, get the Zuni Cafe Cookbook and look for an unsung chicken recipe in which she herself uses thighs to braise, add honey and figs and vinegar. It’s a long way now from her first cookbook, Cucina Rustica, published in the Harper-Collins series up over on the right here.  “I think I used to make things like fettucini with bacon and button mushrooms. Terrible. Just horrible combinations. Things that won’t go together.” Just like in the books. After deciding to organize the store by subject, she thought it would be great to put the Jewish Cooking and the Middle Eastern Cooking sections next to each other, finally existing in peace. But the books would not have it, and the way space played out, fate separated the cuisines on the shelves almost exactly. “As in life,” she says, laughing at the lightness of the topic, but with a note of true and deep sadness on the backend. I stand and look in the corner and how the books cascade down, the Jewish books round out one column and the Middle Eastern, sure enough, kicking off the next wall. Still, you can kind of tell she wants to find a way. She wants everything to work out the way her mind fancies its collection, each idea a jewel.

Tools of the trade

And the collections do not stop at the printed word. There are other treasures to be found among the books. Post cards. Antique scales and baking tins. A beautiful box of seeds for sale with names like poems and tiny bottles containing liquor of yore. On the counter, there’s a stack of dozens of eggs so beautiful you get the idea that Celia knows the chickens well, and they laid the things especially for her.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

And then there are the books for the collector. When you look at these books, you realize what this store really is. It’s the extra room in the house. It’s the place she gets to go buck wild, a built in excuse for collecting and releasing, making an obsession serve the world. Having actual needs and space for the objects of desire. These books are so perfect, each one so specifically displayed, to be a party to its existence, let alone a potential buyer, is a treat. You can run your fingertips across their bevelled leather covers, hear the spines hiss open and smell the meandering life of the paper, a faint ochre creeping onto pages.

Wishbone Dressing, you can suck it.

Everything about this place is personal. Each crevice has her signature on it. Each title is something she’s conversant in. And then… are you sitting down? Go ahead, have a seat. Because you are also invited for events here. These writers come and give readings in the tiny spot, a microscopic block party. Alice Waters is showing up to celebrate 40 years of Chez Panise, the legend of Berkeley. She’s is coming here, to Celia’s House, to talk to you. It’s because everyone wants to sit with Celia and watch her laugh, better yet, make her laugh. It’s like you won something. It’s such an infectious thing, to be around a person who is doing the thing they are meant to do, who is in the world, being exactly who they are supposed to be, surrounded by their things they have selected, curated, object by object in the sun on white shelves, to share with you. And you want to make her laugh to give even the tiniest thing back because what she has done here is a quiet masterpiece, an interactive performance art piece. An installation of great magnitude that harkens Home. Come on in, these nice shoes welcome you.

Come on in.

They say, let’s talk about your kitchen, the spice mix that you brought home from India. Let’s talk about Rick Bayless and come by later for a glass of wine and a chat with Peter Reinhart about his search for the perfect pizza. Tell me about your problems and I’ll show you books to fix them. I’ll be right here. Archiving things.

Oh, did I mention? She is releasing her first book, too. And instead of showing off, which she is totally qualified for, she made her book a tool for all of us. It’s a recipe keeper emblazoned with vintage images from the amazing collection of books in the store.

I suggest putting on your softest mismatched pajamas, lugging out that stack of magazines and clipping out the recipes you keep meaning to organize, and while your oven roasts this evening’s adventure, you can get cozy with Celia’s soon to be released Recipe Keeper, featuring pockets for your collection.

And she's generous, too.

This is really, for me, the way iconic style means something. My friend Michelle disagrees. She says a person can be nice, interesting, delightful, even, but that doesn’t mean they have any sense of fashion. Her example is the new Princess across the pond. Bores her to tears. I say, “Chelle, I don’t know. She seems really nice.” Michelle doesn’t care. I mean, I get it. Also from the world of Kates, Katie Holmes sends me to Sandmanville immediately so I understand. In fact, she actually looks like she’s from Noe Valley, sporting the sheen of the well-off in such a dowdy, stupor-inducing fashion, that I get Michelle’s point. But this is not the land of Kates. This is Celia’s world, a bright room of bliss where I implore you to come in, and sit down for awhile.

This is a place where you just might have one of those moments where language works either between live people or in one of these books. It could be a day where the chasm is bridged and you connect to something, a recipe or a travel log. You might find the book your Auntie taught you to cook adobo from or chat about Love and Knishes, the lost art of schmaltz. Or maybe you’ll just wander in and spend a whole afternoon off visiting a hundred foreign lands with your fingertips and then quietly take your leave, padron peppers from down the street calling to you by name.

Come in. Sit down. Read.

About Sara Elise Seinberg

I love a princely oak cabinet fronted with leaded glass and piled with Heath ceramics. Give me sun dried linen sheets and red ticking. I like wild and calm at turns, a person who can mix a pattern successfully, and I often daydream of paint chips tumbling in file across a wall at the hardware store. My longing to return to the outfits of Jewish summer camp has been fulfilled with a recent return to pond fashion and striping, raw leather, a fisherman's bracelet from a beach town for $2.95. Thanks, world. I can't wear ruffles or bows, even handsome ones, and honor those who can. I want my food on a pretty plate in explosions of color with exclamations of texture collisions. I want it healthy, divine, and crammed with life. I love a snack, a scarf, and a good belt. I have a running wish list for my dream kitchen. My favorite articles of clothing are a pair of used boots I got while New York living was eating me alive. They cost $42 and I couldn't afford them then, and they are my personal sign of the intrepid. The other thing is a stripy French sailor shirt, thick and too big, like wearing a friend on your shoulders into the world.

4 comments

  1. anissegross

    What a lovely post – I adore Omnivore and the care you put into writing this.

  2. Stephanie

    Wow. What a smart, lovely, intriguing and wonderful piece. I love your big busy brain, Sara!! And now I really, really want to go to Celia and ask her to show me her pajama top.

  3. Being a maniac for the scent of detergent, I totally understand burying your head in freshly laundered pajamas. Where I diverge is the mixed set theory: pajamas look perfectly fine as a matched top and bottom.

  4. I’m with you on personality being an important contributing factor to style, at least as crucial as hair and shoes. Oh, and that Book of Salads makes me actually want to eat a salad, which almost never happens.

IBC LOVES your brain, and we encourage thoughtful, lively discussion. We will, however, moderate comments that are abusive or disrespectful. Stay classy!

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