In 2002, when Lee Brian Schrager started the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, the receiving manager at Books & Books spent the night in the sales tent on the sands of South Beach to make sure cookbooks didn’t wander off in the wee hours of the night. He didn’t encounter thieves but he did meet homeless people hoping to crash.
My first time working the festival was in 2005. Our sales tent was so enormous that it took two days to make all the stock presentable. We layered cardboard beneath the table legs to keep them from sinking in the sand under the weight of the cookbooks piled on top.
I remember we lost several tables of inventory facing the ocean to rain on Friday night. When Wolfgang Puck stopped by our tent on Saturday, we explained that we only had a few books to sign due to overwhelming sales. Chef Puck didn’t look beneath the tablecloths to see the wet, ruined cookbooks we’d hidden, most of which were his. My boss held Wolfgang Puck’s baby for him while he signed.
I remember a blond in a clinging dress and high heels, chasing Mario Batali as he walked out. Batali opened the festival and didn’t sign so it couldn’t have been much after eleven in the morning. The time didn’t matter; this blonde was shitfaced. She balled her dress in one hand so she could run in those five-inch heels, cleavage all a-bounce, wine glass sloshing, screaming, “Mario! Mario!” as she plowed past our tent. With no free hand to break her fall, she hit the sand face-first and slid. Her bare feet left furrows behind her in the sand, her high heels stuck in the ends like sinking ships.
I remember meeting Giada de Laurentiis for the first time, her smile like a shotgun blast at close range. She was nervous, sweet, and nice enough to keep signing after the sunlight failed us. We sold 425 copies of Everyday Italian, a SOBE record that still stands.
That’s almost 900 pounds of books- half a ton for one chef if you count the copies we didn’t sell. Imagine the same amount for all the marquee Chefs – Anthony Bourdain, Paula Deen, Tyler Florence, Emeril Lagasse, and Rachael Ray. Add titles for the dozen or so chefs with smaller but equally fierce followings who are signing, a selection of the year’s bestselling cookbooks, titles for local chefs and restaurants, and all the cookbooks for chefs who weren’t putting on shows. You’re looking at three tons of cookbooks. Hauled through loose sand. In 90-degree weather.
If you found yourself at Books & Books’ booth in those early days, it wasn’t booze making us giddy. Or not just booze.
In 2007, The Food Network became the primary sponsor and our lives got a lot easier. Things got a lot more polished (check out those banners!), a lot more professional (listen to that sound system!), and a lot more hydrated (barrels of Fiji water every ten feet!).
Used to be we had to worry about the delivery truck getting stuck in the sand, followed by the crane that’s supposed to dig it out. Now the biggest worry is finding a consistent hashtag (#SOBE2014? SBWFF2014? #SOBEFEST2014? #SOBEWFF2014?). It’s still the best party of the year. Well, maybe top five for South Beach; booksellers don’t get out much. Everyone is giddy on booze and bare skin, on food and celebrity. The ocean view has their endorphins up. And we get to talk cooking.
Gone are the days when we’d sell in a weekend what we’d sell in a month, so we try to feature hot cookbooks of the moment. Every year has had its cookbook trend – raw, French-Asian fusion, low-carb, no-carb, vegetarian, Thai, Italian, Gluten-Free. This year, the trend was Paleo. We sold a bunch of Nom Nom Paleo and Well-Fed. We always have a nice display of cocktail books and wine guides. Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird was the breakout star. Daniel Boulud’s first cookbook since 1999, the hefty Daniel: My French Cuisine, proved to be as big a draw on the sand as it is in our stores. At six pounds and 416 pages, it’s not just a cookbook, it’s a lifestyle choice.
The celebrity chefs make all the difference in a successful year for us. We begged Tyler Florence to sign and thank God he said yes, because we needed all those Fresh sales. Michael Symon, giddy from his win at the Burger Bash, gave a hilarious presentation and moved a bunch of cookbooks. Martha Stewart only had half an hour before her flight and Emeril Lagasse was suffering from sun poisoning, but they both proved they still have star power – and selling power – even after all these years in the game.
Fun fact about Martha? She doesn’t sweat. This was the hottest SOBE I can remember, and Martha didn’t even develop a glow.
Despite stellar sales of Week in a Day, Rachel Ray couldn’t quite take the best-seller slot. Once again, the title went to Giada. With the bestselling cookbook in the country, I guess it would have been surprising if Giada didn’t sell the most copies at SOBE. Her smile is still as dazzling as it was ten years ago. Of course, she’s a lot more relaxed with the crowds now.
Since that first year, I’ve worked seven SOBE Wine and Food Festivals. I discovered Zyr and Tito’s Handmade Vodka, the best vodkas that Russia and America have to offer. I’ve eaten twenty different kinds of gazpacho, from squid to bloody Mary. I’ve seen Paula Deen slather Robert Irvine with butter and ride him. And this year I saw a ninety-four-year-old woman signing cookbooks.
Cecelia Chiang published The Seventh Daughter seven years ago. When she was 87.
And I thought Emeril was old school.