How Bold Fork Books Became a Literary Destination

The shop offers a wide selection of cooking, baking and beverage-making books

October 31, 2023 7:02 am
Neviana Racheva, 8, reads a book at Bold Fork Books in Washington, DC
Neviana Racheva, 8, reads a book at Bold Fork Books in Washington, DC, on November 27, 2021
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Are you the sort of person who pauses episodes of The Bear to see what Carmy, Sydney and Marcus are reading? Can you tell your Ten Speed Press from your Clarkson Potter? Do you find yourself inextricably drawn to Mount Pleasant? If your answers lean to yes, we may have a bookstore uniquely tailored to your interests.

Located next to neighborhood grocer Each Peach Market, Bold Fork Books has been offering tomes of culinary delight since its initial pop-up in 2019. It expanded into its current iteration, a full cookbook and books-about-food bookstore, in October 2020. “We really didn’t know what to expect when we opened our doors,” co-owner Clementine Thomas tells us. “We started as a pop-up, and then had the opportunity to take over the front half of what was Pear Plum Cafe. It was this kind of COVID-era space-sharing agreement — it allowed us to take a risk without fully knowing whether or not it would work. And so it just completely exploded our expectations.”

Three years in, those expectations have been well met: Bold Fork Books is a preeminent stop on the cookbook circuit; its November events include “A Celebration of Maydan,” an evening with Fuschia Dunlop and her book Invitation to a Banquet and a meeting of the Bold Fork Book Club, which will discuss C Pam Zhang’s novel, Land of Milk and Honey. Part of its winning recipe is its location: DC may be the right city for Bold Fork Books, but Mount Pleasant is definitely the right neighborhood. “It never occurred to us to do it anywhere else,” Thomas says. The store is next door to an independent grocer and a pupuseria. One block north is an ice cream shop that regularly sells out before closing, a tiny art house movie theater specializing in underground classics and a decades-old, beloved neighborhood bar, Raven Grill. Another block north features award-winning breakfast tacos, a bakery and cafe by day/Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand-approved restaurant at night, and an in-demand cocktail bar

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Step inside Bold Fork and you may feel like Belle in Beauty & the Beast — the shop seems like a real-life version of the bookstore in the animated Disney film. It’s cozy, with a small-village-bookshop vibe. In the windows are books by authors coming soon to the store. The shop itself is organized by general interest cookbooks, international cookbooks, beverage recipes, dessert and baking cookbooks, cookbooks by American region, kids’ cookbooks, art and design books, and vintage and out-of-print books and magazines. If you want a guide, Thomas is there to help. If you prefer to choose-your-own-culinary-adventure, take your time to peruse. 

If you haven’t heard of a cookbook bookstore, you’re not alone — there just aren’t that many in existence. “There are a few of them sprinkled around the world,” says Thomas. “The very first one I ever went to is called Books for Cooks in London. My husband Sam and I went to Appetite for Books in Montreal and just fell in love with that concept.” Since opening their store, they’ve visited Book Larder in Seattle, Omnivore Books in San Francisco, Now Serving in Los Angeles and the OG, Kitchen Arts and Letters, in New York. There aren’t many more — just 16 across the US as of 2022, according to Edible. “It seemed like there were really vibrant food communities that had sort of a home base, and we felt DC could use one,” Thomas adds.

Bold Fork Books isn’t the first foray into food for her and her co-owner and husband. “We both worked in restaurants, and we’re partners in a restaurant in Georgetown [Chez Billy Sud],” she says. “We spent our careers working in the industry. And it felt that as the restaurant scene kind of grew and evolved and diversified, it became more and more vibrant. It seemed to us that DC in particular could really use a hub to bring all of these, not just industry professionals, but home cooks and thinkers and writers that were all sort of exploring food and all of it, diversity and complexity.”

That’s showcased in their regulars. “What’s been so wonderful is the diversity of customers,” says Thomas. “First it was the neighborhood-based home cook, but as we’ve evolved it’s definitely more and more industry people — more food policy people and writers and thinkers.” Some of the notable, cheffy friends of the shop include Matt Conroy, Isabel Coss, Paola Velez, Pati Jinich, Tim Ma, Rob Rubba, Danny Lee and Michael Rafidi, as well as The Washington Post’s James Beard Award-winning food and dining editor Joe Yonan.

The reaction from those customers is “mostly delight, [as well as] occasional skepticism about the viability of the concept,” says Thomas. “For the most part, folks are just so excited when they walk in and see that it is literally just cookbooks.”

It’s actually more than cookbooks. Bold Fork Books hosts a cookbook club, a narrative book club and regular author signings at the store, with New York Times-bestselling authors like Natasha Kravchuk, Dan Pelosi and Michael W. Twitty. They also produce events in nearby theaters for bigger food names, like Sohla El-Waylly. The events are what helps it maintain a relationship with customers and neighbors. “It’s a very diverse neighborhood, and folks who live here are just so protective over the independence of the independent businesses,” Thomas says. “It’s just such a vibrant community, and everyone knows each other. I feel like it’s sort of rare in DC these days to have a little pocket that’s so tightly knit and so proud.”

When we ask Thomas if she ever misses the day-in, day-out, non-stop nature of the restaurant industry, she tells us, “I am very happy to be in the book industry. I still get to enjoy what I enjoyed most about working in restaurants, which was meeting people and feeding people and talking about food. Now I get to see that in so many other kinds of contexts. It’s just been really wonderful.”

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