So Long, Barbara-Jo’s Books To Cooks

Finding out Barbara-Jo’s Books To Cooks in Vancouver had closed was like a punch to the gut. I got the news earlier this year when chasing down an early and lesser known Fuchsia Dunlop Sichuan cookbook. That’s what you did if the title you were after was an odd one — you put yourself in the hands of Barbara-jo (small ‘j’) McIntosh.

For this particular hunt, I had parked my car just up the street from the West 2nd Avenue location. But as I was walking toward the shop, something seemed odd. During core business hours it didn’t appear to be open, and when I got closer I could see that the place was empty. It had been months since my most recent visit, so at first I figured they had simply relocated again. I went to my phone to get the new address. “Permanently closed,” claimed the search result.

I’ve lived in Vancouver twice and I loved Barbara-Jo’s (uppercase “J” for the store name) since the day it opened in its original Yaletown location. As a budding home cook in my late 20s I leaned on the Barbara-Jo’s team to feed a cookbook addiction that to this day is a bit of a problem. It was impossible to walk out of there without something new, be it a classic from Marcella Hazan, something mainstream-at-the-time (oh Nigella!) or a niche offering that promised me a new and exciting adventure. Like fondue! What lucky lady won’t swoon over a guy who makes fondue? Several, as it turned out.

Thanks to what was a warm, inviting and incredibly stocked bookshop, I have as many cookbooks on my shelf that I’ve never used as ones I have. And I have not a shred of buyer’s remorse over those that remain uncracked. Because beyond the utility of each book, being at Barbara-Jo’s was an experience increasingly lost to retail today.

I also took advantage of many cooking classes and demonstrations in the shop’s 12-seat open kitchen. A knife skills lesson was the first. I think I was the only one in the class to slice a finger (which may or may not have had something to do with being a little hungover). Severed digits notwithstanding, my cooking life changed when it no longer took me three weeks to dice an onion.

Barbara-Jo’s was also a stop for visiting food dignitaries. Ferran Adrià. Yotam Ottolenghi. Nigella herself. And, if I can drop a name, one of my two meetings with Anthony Bourdain was in Barbara-jo’s shop.

She was (is) warm and welcoming; always ready to share something new. Not in a pushy sales way; more in a “holy crap I’m so excited about this so you gotta check it out” kind of way.

After the attacks on September 11, people reportedly came to the store in droves. Some said it was because they wanted to cook for loved ones, and in one case a customer is said to have wanted to create a taste of home for a family whose plane was diverted to Vancouver. But mostly what they sought was community and a sense of connection that was surely not to be found at a Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.com.

I heard that when the doors closed on the last day of business there was not one book left on the shelves. A legion of fans wanted a piece of history. Getting a last book out of Barbara-Jo’s was the food-nerd version of a hockey fanatic scoring a seat from the Montreal Forum.

While living in Toronto I used to occasionally pop into a shop called The Cookbook Store near Yonge and Bloor. It was a short walk from our house and I could sometimes find what I was after. But it wasn’t a “destination” or any kind of experience. If I couldn’t find my target selection, the revolving cast of passionless sales staff were in no hurry to discuss options or alternatives. So I’d usually go around the corner to Indigo Books and be done with it.

So thank you, Barbara-jo, for offering more. Enjoy your travels and I look forward to seeing you again soon.