After the passage of almost two decades, the memory has a way of playing tricks on you. Over the past twenty years, I have often tried to convince Barbara-jo – the much-beloved proprietress of the recently closed Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks – that I was her first actual customer.
Barbara-jo remains unconvinced to this day. If she’s feeling especially playful, she’ll roll her eyes and ask me the title of the first book I ever bought from her. That’s when my argument begins to crumble like the cookie I can never get around to baking.
You can’t play games with Barbara-jo when it comes to cookbooks. She remembers every last one of them. Selling a particular volume – she liked to call them “tomes” - was always a little like sending her first born off to college. Necessary, to be sure. And often filled with a feeling of joy followed by a natural sense of accomplishment. But there was always a private tug at the heart too. Every single time.
During the last days of the shop, she would gently extol the virtues of a book on Ukrainian cuisine or a leftover guide to brewing your own beer. The fine cherry-wood shelves were stripped almost bare. But there were still a few orphans. And she was determined to find them good homes. On the final day, there wasn’t a single cookbook left.
Now, I find myself struggling to remember that first purchase. Truthfully, I can’t recall what it was. There have been dozens upon dozens over the years, including a few she’s written herself. Quite an extravagance, considering I can barely boil water. Why would a man who can’t cook buy so many cookbooks? Because when you fall in love - with a place or a person or even a state-of-mind - you do what you can in return.
I was there when Barbara-jo turned the key on the original Yaletown location for the first time. There were no shelves, no books, no stove or counter. Just four walls and a cement floor. “Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s going to be great.”
She was borrowing the idea from a shop in London. A place that sold cookbooks and had a working kitchen for culinary classes and visiting chefs. But twenty years ago, Vancouver wasn’t London. So the idea was a genuine risk.
Years later, when she relocated to the space just off 2nd and Burrard, I was there again. The place was in the middle of being renovated. I remember making a face at the crunch of plaster underfoot. “Don’t worry,” she said, taking my hand. “It’s going to be great.”
And it was. Internationally acclaimed chefs came from all over the world, from Anthony Bourdain to Nigella Lawson. The shop developed a worldwide reputation for the kind of intimate hospitality that had its roots in simpler times. And Barbara-jo became famous in the only way that truly matters. She made people happy.
For all the celebrities that came to the shop, I liked the classes with the shop’s in-house chefs best. The warm, old school perfectionism of Adrienne O’Callaghan. Or the funny, endlessly knowledgeable Glenys Morgan, whose quick wit always reminded me of Dorothy Parker with a frying pan.
For many years, I was the only male in Barbara-jo’s Between the Leaves Book Club. An ongoing stationary feast that featured a culinary-themed book accompanied by a suitably glorious meal. I used to come early to watch Glenys prep. Taking my customary seat at the head of the long counter. Often ending up happily perched in the corner as a stream of lovely, accomplished women took their seats.
Nobody seemed to mind that I always sat in the same place. It was my spot. So that’s where I sat for the last event, on the last day, some twenty years after Barbara-jo started the business. CBC's Sheryl MacKay was in shop to interview Author Sarah Britton. Instead of the usual offering of tea, Marquis Wines had generously donated wine. But this time, as I sat in the corner, things were different.
There were so many people packed into the place that you barely noticed the books were gone. Everybody was hugging each other. After the interview was over, June Goldsmith played Over the Rainbow on the in-house piano and everyone sang along.
A couple of days before the last class Barbara-jo was cleaning out all the stuff you accumulate over the decades. She said: “Look, I’d forgotten about this.” It was a note from Julia Child - written on one of those old manual typewriters - congratulating Barbara-jo on finishing her book. Certain letters seemed slightly off-kilter. Refusing to stay in a comfortably straight line, the way life does sometimes.
I was thinking about that letter as people began to leave the shop for the last time. Somebody came up to me and said: “You haven’t budged all night.” She was gone by the time I finally said: “I like it right here.”
Part of me thought, maybe if I stay put I won’t have to move at all. But it doesn’t work that way. We take our memories and line them up on some deeply personal shelf as straight as we can. If we’re lucky, there’s a certain time and place we can take down from that shelf whenever we choose. Like the pages of a book, the wonder of it all will be there just when we need it the most.