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Tim White: Serving up books to food lovers

tim white books for cooks

Co-owner of Books For Cooks

"Being next to Victoria’s biggest tourist destination means that we’ll hear 20 to 30 languages spoken in the store on any given day."

It all started in the autumn of 2000 with a single line newspaper advertisement that simply read, “Cookbook shop for sale.”

Tim and Amanda White spotted it and thought it sounded like a great idea. One hour later, they were the new owners of what would soon become Melbourne’s only independent specialist culinary bookstore, Books For Cooks.

So was this the realisation of a long held dream or the delicious reward of spontaneity?

“A little of both,” Tim, a former lawyer, laughs. "We had been cookbook collectors, cooks and bakers for years so it was a very happy and natural coincidence. It really didn’t take a lot of thought.”

“We used to joke that Amanda (who is a professional cook and baker) would have a bakery and I would own a bookshop, and we would meet for a muffin and coffee in front of our stores every day.”

These days, Amanda and Tim have their hands too full to even cradle a cup of coffee much less sit down for one.

Their encyclopaedic knowledge laced with a deep-seated love for food and drink has seen Books For Cooks blossom into a cherished space for chefs, home cooks, culinary students, food lovers and wine enthusiasts within Melbourne, across Australia and abroad.

Why did you think Melbourne needed such a niche bookstore 17 years ago?

It was actually us who needed a bookstore like this! This was our dream. One of those unplanned opportunities that filled us with happiness from the moment we started.

But does Melbourne need a bookstore like this? In retrospect, it does. All cities that aspire to be cultural cities need specialty bookstores because that element of curation has a big impact on creative endeavours. It opens people’s minds to opportunities.

We’ve sold many interesting and unusual books to chefs, apprentices and restaurateurs, and I’d like to think that in some way, we’ve had an impact on Melbourne’s vibrant food culture.

Books For Cooks was located on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy for 15 years until you moved here 18 months ago. What difference has that made?

When we first bought the business, this is exactly where we wanted to set up shop but we couldn’t get a long-term lease because the then building owner was planning to sell it for redevelopment.

It wasn’t until the City of Melbourne bought the Munro Buildings as part of the market renewal program that the opportunity came up. So it’s karma that we’re here. Having an open space where we can hold events and build a demonstration kitchen was our initial vision. So we’ve come full circle.

What kind of community have you nurtured in this space?

Moving to the CBD has broadened our community because there are many people who live within the city or travel to the market. But oddly enough, the market is a funny little boundary for the City of Melbourne.

There aren’t many residences within a kilometer North and West of the bookstore, and if you look to the South or East, there’s a lot of student accommodation. We haven’t seen many residents from the postcode 3000 in here but at the same time, there are people coming to the market from all sorts of places.

Being next to Victoria’s biggest tourist destination means that we hear 20 to 30 languages spoken in the store on any given day. Yesterday, 95 percent of our customers were tourists.

We spend a lot of time talking about their food experiences in Melbourne and Australia, and we have a lot of fun finding places for people to try something that’s uniquely Melbourne. So we’re part of that bigger community.

What is it that people don’t see happening behind the scenes in a bookstore like this?

People think you just stack stuff up and customers walk in to buy them. But there’s a lot more of a science to retailing than it seems. We came into book selling as book lovers and not book retailers and we’re still learning a lot about the business.

Book selling is also often about cleaning, repositioning and data entry. There’s a lot of manual stuffing around that has to be done.

Are you Melburnian?

I grew up in Geelong so I have to follow the Cats. I can’t follow the Melbourne football team. But am I Melburnian? Well, yes I am. I got into Melbourne when I was in university in 1982. I love it. Wouldn’t live anywhere else.

What do you love and dislike about Melbourne?

I like the scale of the city and it’s level of complexity. There are many artistic and cultural endeavours going on and it’s a city that has embraced the best of food and wine.

However, as we get larger and things become denser, we’re at risk of losing that wider sense of community. It’s become a little easier to not know your neighbour. Easier to be connected digitally and not necessarily knock on the door.

In A Snap:

Favourite Aussie phrase: “She’ll be right.” I really think we are quite laconic.

Favourite European restaurant: Rosa's Canteen on Thomson Street

One question you wish more people would ask you: Would you like to come for dinner?

One question you wish people would stop asking you: Are you Tim White the wine writer?

A book you’re looking forward to in 2017: I Taste Red by Jamie Goode. It’s an in-depth look at the science of tasting and how people perceive wine.

Complete this sentence. A true Melburnian…eats dim sum for Sunday lunch.

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