For those who don’t know, give us an overview of what you do at Rabelais.
We carry a large selection of new books, out of print books, and rare books. Since we moved to Biddeford our real emphasis is on rare material. We have six centuries of books in the shop – dating back to the 16th century. We have a very large collection of older and unusual books – all the big cuisines, English, French, American, and smaller collections of books on Asian cuisine and Latin American cuisine. Some of those books are harder to obtain so we don’t have as many of those as we’d like.
Where do you find the books that you bring into your collection?
We buy all over the country, and a little from all over the world. Our favorite way to buy is from very serious collectors, because they’re the ones who have been out looking and digging for years. If they started collecting 30 or 40 years ago, they’re going to have things that are very hard to obtain now. They also tend to be very focused and have very concentrated collections. We’ve gone to London for the auctions. Every four or five years they might have one in the U.S. but they have a couple of them every year in London.
Is everything for sale?
All of the new books, all of the used books and rare material is for sale. We buy it specifically in order to resell it. It’s our goal to find the right home for any of the things we buy.
Our reference collection isn’t for sale. We have a big reference collection, it’s a couple thousand books on the history of food and bibliographies of cookbooks themselves, and that’s what we use to research the books we buy. I have a small collection of books on the history of Maine cooking, and those aren’t for sale. They’ll be for sale someday, but not until I feel the collection is the best it can be.
Are you focused exclusively on books?
Beyond books themselves, we also sell all of these sort of peripheral things that are part of the food or drink historical record. The category of “ephemera” really covers all printed materials that really weren’t meant to last long, they were made for a special occasion and then their use was over. Things like menus, trade cards, advertising broadsides.
How’d you get into the book business?
I am by trade an antiquarian bookseller. I worked in a bookshop when I was in high school. It was actually one of the first Barnes & Noble stores that wasn’t in New York City. Then when I went to college I walked into the first bookshop that I ran into and asked for a job. It happened to be a really great bookshop that was partially an antiquarian bookshop, so that’s where I was exposed to that. Later on I ended up working for some very high end antiquarian dealers.
What brought your focus to food & drink books specifically?
When my wife and I moved to Maine we started looking at ways of changing what we were doing. She had been interested in food before that and we saw what was going on in Portland eight or nine years ago and thought it would be a good fit. We saw the “for rent” sign next to Hugo’s, where Eventide is now, and decided one day that we were going to do food instead of the other stuff. I sold off all of my other inventory or swapped it with other dealers for food books and then bought every collection I could find that came on the market.
Do you have an all-time favorite book?
One of the types of cookbooks that’s most rare is manuscript cookbooks, which means that they’re entirely handwritten. Most families have something like this, so the idea of a manuscript book is something that’s common to us but having the books last a long time and survive is less common.
I don’t have a single favorite, but the books that I really love are the Elizabethan cookbooks, and we’ve had a number of Elizabethan printed cookbooks and we’ve had two just post-Elizabethan era manuscript books. The English books have a different feel, they’re not quite as controlled, and it's a time for me that was just a really interesting historical moment.
Who is your typical customer?
We have a very big email list, and out of that list we have several institutions that have culinary collections. There are also a lot of private collectors on our list, but the reality is it’s a very tiny number of people that are the people we sell to regularly and they’re mostly people who have been very serious collectors for a very long time.
If you're interested in perusing their collection, are on the hunt for a specific title, or want to begin your own quest into the world of food writing through history, Rabelais is open to the public "by appointment or chance" until summer hits. Check their website for details - their schedule varies depending on travel opportunities to obtain new material. You can also find Don talking cocktails with the Maine Historical Society on April 17, or visit Rabelais on May 13 for a demonstration of American Cookery as revealed by the Apgar Collection, which is currently housed at Rabelais.