Always Hungry

Explorations of a culinary industry burnout

Felicia Lee

Felicia Lee
Location
Gainesville, Florida,
Birthday
December 10
Company
Always welcome--grab a plate and help yourself!
Bio
I am a freelance writer and editor. My professional experience has included testing video games, technical writing for the Space Shuttle program, making desserts in a five-star hotel, and teaching theoretical linguistics at a number of major universities. I love writing, I love cooking, and I especially love writing about cooking. Thanks for coming by!

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 7, 2011 5:27PM

Funeral for a Friend: The Last Days of Books, Inc.

Rate: 6 Flag

  Books Inc.

Books, Inc.  505 NW13th Street, Gainesville, FL. Note the ominous green realtor's sign on the left, which everyone has been pretending not to notice.

There’s a comfortable uniformity to college towns. Visit enough of them and you’ll notice certain distinctive traits: First, each thinks it’s utterly unique. Second, each will invariably boast an aesthetic sensibility dominated by the school’s colors and the near-obligatory presence of tchotchkes bearing the school’s mascot in every store display. Finally, each is likely to have at least one funky used bookstore featuring (a) the owner’s cat, (b) beat-up second-hand furniture of suspect provenance, and/or (c) organic coffee and really thick vegetarian soups.

Until moving to Gainesville (home of the University of Florida – if you’re not a Gator, you’re Gator bait!), I’d never lived in a college town. But I knew what to expect, and I found it. I soon grew thoroughly sick of orange-and-blue–themed everything. Every possible physical object around here, from the city’s recycling bins to Christmas ornaments to corporate logos to baby booties, comes in the University of Florida’s aesthetically vexing color combo. And whenever I travel to other towns, the absence of Gator-shaped key chains, bread rolls, pillows, cookies, and lawn ornaments now strikes me as conspicuous.

But just as I had hoped, there was a funky independent used bookstore to compensate for all of this. Books, Inc. fills a sprawling old house near the university, is furnished with the obligatory frayed armchairs and beat-up side tables from who-knows-where, and boasts a tiny vegetarian eatery (The Book Lover’s Café) that serves sturdy earthenware mugs of soup and organic coffee to a loyal population of students, aging hippies, writing groups, and Dungeons and Dragons players. No cat, though – the place has enough interesting characters on hand that it doesn’t need one.

I’m not a hippie type. Nor am I a vegetarian. But the first time I stepped into Books, Inc., something about the scruffy, casual vibe of the place just felt good and right. And over the past few years, it has come to epitomize the best of Gainesville for me.

Its cashier’s desk – a retail establishment’s place of honor – features not bestsellers and bookmarks, but an ever-changing jumble of works by local and regional writers – everything from paperbacks by nationally known locals to collections by critically acclaimed poets to self-published zines and charity cookbooks, along with books about local flora, fauna, and history. (This brings up another thing I love about this place:  While a lot of big-box outlets around here try to cop a “local” vibe by painting “GO GATORS!” in the front window and hanging a few posters of Tim Tebow, the commitment to local culture at Books, Inc. is deep and genuine – and miraculously, expressed without a single shred of orange-and-blue crepe paper). Local writers who manage to get published also know that Books, Inc. is the place to host book-signing parties.

The store’s most loyal and colorful clientele, however, are would-be creative luminaries, who are also nurtured and fed, intellectually and literally, at the dozen or so mismatched tables scattered throughout the store. One of my two writing groups – the one whose members compensate for their chronic flakiness with peerless conversational skills and brilliantly incisive critiques (on the rare occasions they actually get around to reading each other’s submissions) has held its weekly meetings there for the past two years, and is only one of several writing groups that regularly jockey for table space in the busy store.

books inc show card

My husband had his first-ever photography exhibition in its tiny art gallery – and every  time I came in during the time the exhibit was up, Anne, the owner, made a point of coming up to me and telling me excitedly about how some customer or another had loved his photos. When we hosted an opening night reception in the little gallery, she mixed up a huge bowl of punch, put out hummus and chips and cookies to supplement our supply of wine and cheese, helped us set everything up, and waited along with us, as eager for Glenn’s success as we were.

books inc show 

At the end of the month-long exhibition, Anne told us that Glenn’s exhibition had been their most profitable in years.  He eagerly agreed to do another show in the following year. Now we were both established members of Books, Inc.’s creative community, and I envisioned Books, Inc. becoming for us what Shakespeare and Company was to Gertrude Stein and  Ernest Hemingway.

Then last month, Glenn got a call from Anne.  His next show was cancelled:  She and her husband were retiring and closing the store in early 2012.

There had been a big “For Sale” sign outside Books, Inc. since forever, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But business inside the store seemed to go on as usual, so it was easy to not to think the unthinkable. On a couple of occasions, members of my writing group speculated about it, but we did our best to stay in a state of denial.  Surely, they couldn’t be serious about selling the place.  Maybe just the property was being sold, and the store was only renting it. Books, Inc. is so well established in the community, someone would come forward to buy it – wouldn’t they?

My writing group, to my annoyance, has recently moved our meetings to a thoroughly mediocre restaurant down the street at the request of a member who declared he didn’t like eating “rabbit food.” (This member quit soon after for unrelated reasons.) But I’m going to petition to move our next few meetings back to Books, Inc., for old times’ sake.

Some of my fondest memories of life in Gainesville will always be those writing-group meetings there – evenings of wandering conversations that typically veer from vampires to Watergate to space travel to food, Florida history, and gun control, and then back again, all fueled by tempeh Reuben sandwiches, creamy-but-cream-free soups, and a mysterious house-made fresh ginger brew that none of us have been able to replicate. On a typical evening, Lina would struggle to get her laptop connected to the store’s touch-and-go wireless network, Wes would meander about during breaks, looking for books on European history, and I would drink in the place’s signature scent of coffee, cumin, and old paper while eavesdropping on other groups of readers, writers, and diners, all having conversations just as pointless and random as ours.

I need to cement as many of these memories into my brain as I can, and soon – because in a few months, that’s all I’ll have left of one of my favorite places.

 

One item on the Book Lover’s Café  menu that I haven’t yet gotten around to ordering is called “Our Plumber’s Pasta.”  It seems to be a typical college-town hippy-ish mixture of pasta, vegetables, and almonds in a sort-of-Asian-style sauce. But only after buying the Book Lovers’ Café cookbook as a souvenir recently (it was, of course, right on the cashier’s table, along with all the other local works) did I realize how true my characterization was:  the base of the dish, and the source of flavoring in the original formulation of the recipe, was a notorious student standby -- instant ramen noodles and flavoring packets! But the truly novel and creative part of the recipe is that it requires no cooking whatsoever – instead, the “instant” noodles soak overnight in a soy-and-vinegar-based marinade until tender. (And according to the cookbook, the popular dish was indeed the invention of the original chef’s plumber.) Of course, I had to try my own version of it.

The book didn’t say who this plumber was. But I picture him as a bright, independent-minded UF dropout who decided he wanted to do real work with his hands rather than spend his life pushing paper around. More than any of the other, more conventionally wholesome dishes on the café’s menu, with their locally sourced organic ingredients, this plumber’s creation speaks loudly and clearly to a distinct sense of place: Where else could such a dish have evolved and flourished except in a community dominated by starving students and aspiring artists with dreams of far-away places and bigger things?

  plumbers pasta

OUR PLUMBER’S PASTA

(Adapted from The Book Lover’s Café Cookbook, by Ian Schliefer)

Note: The original recipe called for balsamic vinegar, but I substituted Chinese sweetened black vinegar, which has similar tangy, caramel notes and is a LOT cheaper.

For the pasta and vegetables:

3 (3.5 ounce) packages instant ramen  (according to the original recipe, all the ingredients in “Oriental”- flavored ramen are vegetarian, but check the ingredient list if this is a concern. If not, any basic flavor will work.)

1 large green bell pepper, diced

½ medium red onion, diced

½ cup red cabbage, diced

1/3 cup sliced or slivered almonds

For the marinade:

¼ cup canola oil

¾ sweetened black vinegar

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 seasoning packet from an instant ramen package

I teaspoon finely grated garlic (about 1 medium clove)

1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger

1 cup water

1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl; set aside.

2. Break up the cakes of ramen noodles into small pieces (about ½ inch across), and put them in a large bowl. Toss thoroughly with vegetables and marinade. (Discard remaining two flavoring packets or reserve for another use.)

3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rest, overnight, in the refrigerator. (Instant ramen noodles are already cooked; soaking them in the marinade will rehydrate them into their more familiar “cooked” form.)  Serve cold or at room temperature.

 

 

 

Your tags:

TIP:

Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:

Comments

Type your comment below:
Good luck on your new spot.. and these poor bookstores are closing because of e books etc..
HUGGGGGGGGGG
So sorry to know this but at least I can eat plumbers pasta. Thanks!
Felicia, as always, a bright and engaging essay, and I'm still giggling over the way you nailed Southern college town football and hippie-dippie bookstore culture. A friend shared a very bad interpretation of this dish - I can't wait to try your upscale version. Here's hoping a buyer will step in and save the store - it sounds like such a valuable part of the community!
It's so wonderful to read another post from you - but throughout this one, I couldn't help but feel sad that Books Inc. is going to be sold. Please, someone, come forward and buy this wonderful place and keep it going!

I also love the recipe - and am tempted to attempt it!
Linda -- Hugs to you, too!
Algis -- No matter, what, the pasta lives on! Thanks for coming by!
Lucy -- I did tweak the original recipe quite a bit (I went from three packets of ramen flavoring down to one and added the ginger and garlic, among other things). Hope you enjoy it!
Alysa (and Lucy) -- several buyers have come up, but the banks turned them all down, even one who offered to pay in cash! How much does THAT suck?
It must indeed feel like a funeral. RIP, independent bookstores. Though it does seem like those located in college towns would be better positioned than most to create a niche, so hopefully a new owner or a new bookstore will pop up to take its place.
Felicia,
Thanks for taking us to Books. Now I will miss the place,too. Here's hoping for it rescue.
So nice to see you, Felicia! This is one of the best answers I've seen to the Open Call, although it saddens me to see such lovely places close. I love that you couldn't resist providing a recipe. It sounds like a similar one by Paula Deen. Take care, and best wishes on your new blog spot.

R♥
College towns are always evolving. Something else will spring up. In Madison where I live there are numerous coffee shops that serve a similar function. The closest to what you have is a place called Mother Fool's, which, though it isn't a bookstore, has other things, and fledgeling bands play there.

Back in the mid-70s it seemed everyone was migrating to Maine or Gainesville. I almost moved to Gainesville, but ended up elsewhere. In those days it was a Mecca of sorts, famous for the "Gainesville Eight" Vietnam Veterans Against the War, for the alternative agriculture in the area, and for the balmy climate. Later, sadly, it became known as one of the stopping-off points for Ted Bundy.

This was an enjoyable read, a nice little writing lesson. I look forward to future offerings.
I would have been sneezing my way out of there. The letters though must have been amazing.EXGF
But business inside the store seemed to go on as usual, so it was easy to not to think the unthinkable.visit
I’m interested in and hope other people will be interested, too.” Some of her ideas are drawn from the people in her life.Charter Bus Relationship Issues
Your blogs and every other content is so entertaining and useful It makes me come back again.
No1partypills.com
I'm gladsome to mature so more serviceable and informative assemblage on your website.I utterly attitude and revalue your bushel on each and every target.
No1partypills
Your blogs and every separate material are so remarkable and lucrative it makes me come back most again.
day care
Outstanding blog you guys have preserved there, I totally valuate the effort.
day care