Barbara-Jo McIntosh’s sister owns lots of cookbooks but when she needs to look up a recipe, she’s more likely to go onto the internet, prop her computer on her kitchen counter and begin to cook. The recipe she’s following is probably in one of her cookbooks but there’s an ease to searching for it online rather than on her bookshelf.
So McIntosh understands why fewer people are coming to Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks on West 2nd Street. And now she needs her loyal fans to understand why she’s closing Vancouver’s venerable all-things-culinary destination.
“It’s a societal shift and you have to find another way. Everything’s changed so I had to change too,” she says. “But I have to change out of my bookshop rather than in it.
“I feel no bitterness. I just feel so much joy. I did a good thing for a long time.”
Last Christmas was the worst for the 20-year-old retailer. “When people aren’t coming into your store you honestly feel that what you’ve done is not of value,” she says, adding that she’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and memories since the announcement became known.
The drop in business wasn’t simply due to the fact that we are all “living a screen life,” as McIntosh says.
Ninety-eight per cent of her books come from the United States, so retail prices are hit by the low Canadian dollar. Construction on nearby Burrard Street not only affects traffic coming into her store but, she’s been told, other businesses in the area as well.
She could have considered becoming an online book distributor but “an online business is looking at a computer screen all day, wrapping up books and taking them to the post office. I wanted to be with people, talking to people.
“I could never compete with all the discount houses anyway.”
McIntosh has deep roots in Vancouver’s food scene. From 1990 to 1993 she owned Barbara-Jo’s Elegant Home Cooking, a concept that was ahead of its time. A trained chef, she worked with Umberto Menghi for five years as well as the Mandarin Hotel and the catering business. “I understand the chefs,” she says. “I know where their heads are.”
She’s also written a book, Cooking For Me and Sometimes You, and hopes to finish a second when she returns to France later this year as she decides what’s the next chapter in her life.
Books to Cooks opened in Yaletown in 1997. When she moved to its current location next to Les Amis du Fromage in 2005, she asked a business friend for advice. He, of course, advised her to keep renovation costs low. She, as is her wont, wanted to create a place that would give her joy every day that she worked there. The store has warm wooden book shelves, a kitchen area and even a piano that doubles as a book display area.“I created a place where I wanted to be.”
It paid off.
In March 2014, famed Spanish chef Ferran Adria came to Vancouver to promote his work at the ElBulli Foundation. She arranged an event at the Vancouver Club with all of the city’s top chefs. “It was the honour of being able to see in person the passion he has for what he’s doing,” she says.
When he first arrived, however, he wasn’t in the best of moods and seemed more intent on going to his hotel room to rest.
The next day, Barbara-Jo invited those top chefs to Books to Cooks to present some of their signature dishes for the famed chef who’d made it his life’s mission to “decode the genome of gastronomy.”
“As soon as he walked into the shop, his shoulders dropped and a smile came on his face. You could see him thinking, ‘Oh, so this is who this woman is, this is her passion.’”