As Amtrak’s Keystone train was pulling into Philadelphia on a summer Friday, I overheard the woman behind me informing her two teenage kids: "This is where they make the cream cheese." And it was all I could do not to spin around and correct her: "No, this is where they have the Reading Terminal Market. And a cookbook store worthy of that wondrousness."
The lively market, just down Market Street from the train station, is nearly always one of my first stops on any trip back to the city where I starved myself for three years, in another lifetime as a weight-obsessed copy editor, not a professional eater. Every year it gets better; on one recent trip we found an entire stand devoted to lamb and another selling cheeses made on the premises. But the Cook Book Stall has been a consistent lure, the place where you can always find the latest in local food of the print variety — and, as with the market itself, so much more.
Locals, tourists and lunchers are usually either looking for recipe guidance or in the mood to drop a little plastic for a souvenir.
Jill Ross, who bought the 250-square-foot shop 10 years ago from the woman who opened it in 1983 or so, says she doubts it would have lasted so long if not for the oldest rule in the food business: Location, location, location. Locals, tourists and lunchers in from the adjacent convention center are usually either looking for recipe guidance or in the mood to drop a little plastic for a souvenir like The Reading Terminal Market Cookbook ( "our Junior League cookbook"). Ross caters to chefs, but she also acknowledges that she needs impulse buys by "people who don’t even know they’re going to be walking past a bookstore." (While I was grilling her, she rang up a blank journal — "no Amex, only Visa/MasterCard" — for a young tourist. "I swore I wouldn’t sell those, but people keep asking.")
As you might expect in a market dominated by independents, with not a Cinnabon to be sniffed, the stock in the Cook Book Stall is highly personal. Ross says publishers’ reps know her tastes (you might spot anything from Richard Olney’s classic Simple French Food to Real Food for Cats); she also likes to showcase "anything pretty," particularly from Artisan and Workman, because "it’s all about eating with your eyes." She clearly prefers jazzy covers and go-for-it topics: bacon, barbecue, cheese. On one display table you might find find titles as disparate as Malts & Milkshakes, Rick Stein’s India, Balance and Harmony from Australia's Neil Perry, Autobiography of a Delicatessen (that would be Katz’s) and Culinaria volumes on France, Spain, Hungary and Southeast Asia.
"Anything from Phaidon is really popular," Ross says. "Carla Hall and the Chew sell well, but I steer away from television chefs." (Alton Brown, a recent visitor, seems to be an exception.) She does dispense Rachael Ray’s magazine, but Art Culinaire is displayed higher up, at eye level. Right now she is helping a local author promote I’m Hot, You’re Hot, a macrobiotic guide for couples, because "she’s a nice lady."
The shelving is not dictated by Dewey Decimal, either, even though Ross has a background in library science. To her left as she sits on a cushioned stool at the counter are healthy, vegetarian, raw, vegan etc. choices; to her right are Italian and Asian and Mexican and more. The seemingly random arrangement "makes people come talk to me, talk about what they want, how they like to cook."
"People come talk to me, talk about what they want, how they like to cook." —Jill Ross
But what sells best, always, is "the local stuff." Vedge, from the renowned meat-free Philadelphia restaurant of the same name, is "seriously popular." Philadelphia Cooks Italian does well, too, with recipes from the Italian Market and South Philadelphia restaurants. The newish Preserving by the Pint, for which Ross did a promo at the impressive Fair Food Farmstand in the market, is another reliable seller. And the decades-ahead-of-its-time Frog/Commissary Cookbook remains a top title long after the groundbreaking restaurants themselves closed. (The catering division lives on, however.)
The market cookbook, which includes descriptions of vendors, is now being updated and will be out before the holidays, Ross says. Given that the market is home to 32 restaurants, as well as shops selling everything from scrapple to tortillas, the recipes should be even better than in the 1983 original.
Other books that move in the stall are Yotom Ottolenghi's Jerusalem and anything on butchering. When I spoke to Ross, she had high hopes for Einat Admony's Israeli cookbook Balaboosta as her next big seller, maybe not surprisingly in a city where Zahav is always among the top restaurant recommendations.
But now she is even more excited by the "glut" of fall titles, particularly Sean Brock’s Heritage, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune and Plenty More from Ottolenghi. The much-buzzed-about Mallmann On Fire, Ross happily reports, is "out and selling."
"Chefs usually talk books. Honestly, I’m not interested in that part. I want them to make great food." —Jill Ross
Ross networks with chefs constantly but refuses to gossip, let alone name her favorite restaurant in the competitive city. "When they talk to me, they usually talk books. Honestly, I’m not interested in that part. I want them to make great food."
And while she is not high on TV-centric chefs, she does appreciate star power. Once she "spotted Marcus Samuelsson buying cheese around the corner and called out: ‘Excuse me, Chef.’" Then got him to sign books. Alice Medrich will also stop by to sign books whenever she passes through Philadelphia.
Ross, who says she traveled through Europe while younger, eating in good restaurants and taking cooking classes as a "lady of leisure," test-drives some of her stock, particularly books on baking. "I love it when they send uncorrected proofs," to get the first trials by oven. So she can serve as a sort of information booth for both cookbooks and the market, steering buyers to the right stalls for the right ingredients. She is around the aisle from an excellent salumeria, steps from a seafood stall, not far from the main produce stand, across from a fancy table linens shop and, now, catercorner from a swanky herbal-products emporium that actually looks right at home among the Pennsylvania Dutch vendors of sausages and pickles.
Along with journals and aprons and assorted nonverbal items, Ross also sells postcards of the original market, which opened in 1892 and still has a decidedly gritty feel even as new management is keeping it cleaner. She stocks back issues of food magazines for a buck a pop (late/lamented Food Arts, anyone?). And she displays a demo set of the Ferran Adrià massiveness on her counter with another at the ready in case "anyone wants to spend $600 on a cookbook."
The Cook Book Stall has a few unfilled shelves, but Ross has started an online store and stocks it from a warehouse. A sign in the shop, though, does send a message to those price-checking online while browsing: "Find it here + buy it here = keep us here."
Ross, who just renewed her lease for five years, got hooked on the Cook Book Stall after wandering past one day and spotting a help-wanted sign. "I walked up and said: ‘Hi, I’m Jill. I’ll see you on Monday.’ That brazen, I was. The owner and I hit it off; I was supposed to be the part-time guy, but a year and a half later I bought the shop," after taking classes at Wharton and drawing up a business plan.
"Find it here + buy it here = keep us here."
Now she revels in her situation. "The market is almost like a family. My son has been coming almost since he was in my stomach. He learned his first Korean words here. Everyone knows Emerson here. I always say it takes a market. You know, like a village?" The whole market shuts down in time for her to head home for dinner.
Her boyfriend of six years, Dallas Drummond, is manager of Blue Mountain Vineyards in nearby Lehigh Valley, which has its own large stall just across the market. Closing is as simple as pulling down heavy canvas blinds that attach to loops in the concrete floor. When she says "it’s a good life," it sounds like an understatement.
And in a refrigerated case at a stall nearby, you can always find cream cheese for sale. But it’s not labeled Kraft. This bears a sign reading: "Locally made. Philadelphia’s finest."