Sven owns thirty thousand cookbooks. Why does Sven own thirty thousand cookbooks? He could not tell you.
He will tell you that he likes to cook, that he can taste a recipe by reading it, that he likes going to flea markets, that he started buying cookbooks when he was twenty-two, but nothing he tells you will really explain how he came to own thirty thousand of them. He is a collector, and that’s all you can say. If you are also a collector, this impulse needs no further explanation. If you are not a collector, you sit with Sven for three hours trying to tease out the secret of this impulse in vain. I am not a collector.
Sven moved to Berlin five years ago to open his bookstore, Bibliotheca Culinaria; the bookstore is his collection; before this, he was a florist. Sven is not, superficially at least, as eccentric as you may expect a man who owns thirty thousand cookbooks to be. He is a mild-mannered, middle-aged man with blond hair and gentle bearing: his disposition is relaxed, he offers you a cup of coffee, he reclines in his chair—until you ask about a book or make an offhand comment about a cover or simply glance at a shelf, and soon he is on his feet, running his hand across the spines, pulling one out, now two, and telling you about them, their history, their contents, perhaps where he bought them, with an irrepressible smile, and suddenly there are five books on your lap and you are still taking notes on the first. Like many visitors, I happened to be walking by and was directed to the store by a sandwich board on a nearby corner; I returned a few days later with a notebook.
His core customers are a small group of fellow aficionados, each with their own tastes and persuasions. Some, for example, only buy old editions: a cookbook from 1730 once sold for four hundred euros. Many tourists wander into the store, but they are more taken by his small collection of antique kitchen appliances. Artists also come in, searching for information or inspiration. Professional chefs, who one might think would be an ideal demographic, are not frequent customers. Sven says they have a haughty attitude toward cookbooks.
Sven’s cookbooks—in German, in English, in French—are probably the only used books in the world whose value is not depreciated by stains and handwritten notes. Among the most expensive items in his collection are classic cocktail guides, perhaps reflecting the current vogue for mixology. The most expensive book Sven has ever sold, for one thousands euros, was an 1890 copy of Jerry Thomas’s The Bar-Tender’s Guide. Another such book now on offer is a 1937 collection of food and cocktail recipes from Angostura Bitters, discovered in—or, in Walter Benjamin’s parlance, liberated from—a Romanian flea market.
Nothing is sacred in Sven’s collection. He will, in fact, encourage you to buy his most cherished possessions, which sit on a shelf next to his desk, because he enjoys the challenge of reacquiring them. I suspect that bliss, for Sven, is selling and repurchasing his entire collection in a sort of unending samsaric cycle. Current occupants of this shelf include The Shabby Gourmand, a 1947 cookbook advising the postwar epicure how best to use his ration cards and ersatz products; Sophia Loren’s surreal cookbook; and the German translation of Time Life’s Technicolor cookbook for the 1950s American middle class, which looks like a bad acid trip of that era’s hopes and perceptions.
There are, by my estimation, at least a million recipes in Sven’s store, which, at a rate of three a day, would take you more than nine centuries to cook. Recipes are the kernel of Bibliotheca Culinaria, but they are not its essence. “Can a stamp album serve as a textbook of psychology?” Bruno Schulz wrote in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. “What a naive question! A stamp album is a universal book, a compendium of knowledge about everything human. Naturally, only by allusion, implication, and hint. You need some perspicacity, some courage of the heart, some imagination in order to find the fiery thread that runs through the pages of the book.” A cookbook is a universal book, and Sven’s store is no different than any other bookstore: it is a repository of history and knowledge.
The store is located in the souterrain of a handsome building near the bustling Rosenthaler Platz. The collection is so large that it also occupies an overflow room, likewise subterranean, on the other side of the entrance. The two front rooms, with a wisp of natural light, are cozy and agreeably insulated: I would like to sip hot chocolate in there on a snowy day. The back room, bathed in fluorescent light, is less inviting. There is an internal logic, I think, to the shelving, but, like any good used bookstore, chaos threatens to usurp any attempt to impose order. Nonetheless, if a customer is interested in a specific title, they need only show Sven the cover and he will be able to tell them immediately if he has it and, if so, where it can be found.
The oldest books, handwritten and dating to the early eighteenth century, have been used by German linguists to study the development of local dialects. A Canadian graduate student consulted Sven’s collection to research East Germany’s decisive influence on the establishment of Vietnam’s coffee industry. Kochkunst, Germany’s first serious culinary magazine, was shut down by the Nazis for its perceived French sympathies; vegetarianism was trendy in fin de siècle Germany; the Second Reich’s 1907 food laws regulate the sale of dog meat; rhubarb, a staple of German summer cuisine, only arrived, via Nepal, around 1900: it’s on Sven’s shelves.
There is a White House cookbook from a German who was once its executive chef; Salvador Dalí’s cookbook, recently reissued, which appropriates classic images from the French chef Jules Gouffé; and a cookbook of Operation Vittles, otherwise known as the Berlin airlift, which includes drawings from children, a naive visualization of a pivotal moment in the city’s postwar history.
Nazi cookbooks delineate proper German cuisine, the proper role of German women. Cookbooks for German colonialists advise how to deal with natives, make a fortune in the nut trade. These and many other German cookbooks, Sven informs me, share a common source: Henriette Davidis, Germany’s first celebrity cookbook author, whose recipes were iterated and updated according to the zeitgeist for decades following her death in 1876, an unlikely palimpsest of German history.
We tend to think of German history and culture as a parade of big names: Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Bismarck, Mann, Hitler, et cetera. But for millions of Germans, among the most poignant memories of history, as it is actually experienced, was the easy bliss of a childhood meal, likely prepared from a Henriette Davidis recipe. The facsimile of these family meals, like the recipe of Proust’s madeleine, is now preserved, and maybe he doesn’t even really know why, by Sven: a collector of cookbooks, foremost, but also a collector, inadvertently perhaps, of embedded memories, cultural marginalia, and historical micro-impressions, which is to say: a collector.
Alex Cocotas is a writer based in Berlin. His work has appeared in Jacobin, Tablet, The New Inquiry, Full Stop, The Awl, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quartz. He is at work on a novel and recently finished a manuscript of essays and reportage about Israel.