How to Spend $1,000 on Cookbooks in an Afternoon: Go to Vegas

Get off the Strip, allow yourself three to four hours and go before gambling to Amber Unicorn Books. One of the best used bookstores in the Las Vegas Valley, Amber Unicorn has, at any given time, more than 200,000 books on hand, of which 16,000 are cookbooks.

Amber Unicorn is a little, unassuming shop in a strip center with a Trader Joe's. Owners Myrna and Lou Donato keep watch over their collections with a passion that is palpable when you walk in. If you don't love books, don't bother stopping in. They love to share their literary love and will wax poetic about books for as long as you will talk to them. Their knowledge is extensive.

I first learned of Amber Unicorn in Saveur magazine. I immediately put it on my list of "must go" places and fortunately didn't have to wait too long. I visited Myrna and Lou this past May. I walked in ready to see a couple hundred, maybe even 400, cookbooks -- not even close. After I weaved my way through all the other sections and finally happened upon the cooking section, I felt like I had slayed a few dragons in the forest of bookshelves to find a hidden treasure.

There were thousands of cookbooks. I took a moment to take it all in -- I was standing in cookbook Mecca, and it didn't matter which way I faced, because they were all around me. Tall ones, short ones, fat ones, shiny ones, tattered ones, new ones, lovingly worn ones -- how would I ever be able to look at all of them?

After I had made a slight tower of books that grabbed my attention, Myrna met me in the stacks. She was the grandmotherly, librarian type and had come to size me up. These cookbooks are her babies, and the buyer has to be worthy of them. She asked me what I was looking for, why I was looking for cookbooks, about my food/cooking experiences, etc.

I must have passed the test, because I was taken to a glass cabinet with some very special books in them and was allowed to touch them. As the title may indicate, later I bought them! Although the glass cabinet is pretty spectacular to go through, the most exciting thing is that there are many signed and first editions on the regular shelves that you just happen upon depending on what you're looking for or pick off the shelf to look at. They are treasures you weren't even hunting for.

Myrna and Lou named the store Amber Unicorn because Myrna likes unicorns (as evidenced by all the little unicorn statues around the store), and Lou had read a science fiction author, Roger Zelazny, who had written a series called the Amber Series. They put their two favorites together and thus was born their passion, Amber Unicorn. Myrna started cooking in 1949, and she thinks that's where her cookbook "craziness" began.

I had to ship all my books home, or I would have been paying United extra baggage fees. I ended up with more than 16 books that I simply couldn't live without. The rarest book I purchased was one of the first books printed for Japanese chefs coming to America to cook for American families. It is a first edition from 1912 titled Cook's Cook Book Vol. 1 by S.L. Ohata. A second volume was never written, and it is, of course, out of print. It was published by Hinomoto Book Co. The recipes names are printed in English, and the recipes are printed in Japanese.

It is inscribed with the following:

"Books should to one of these four ends conduse, for wisdom, piety, delight or use. In giving this book to you Chester, dear friend, is included the wish that it may serve a good end, for if you read it you will be wise. If without swearing you will be pious, and if you delight in its brews and stews you will know the value of its use. To Chester E. Obenland February 8, 1920 from William W. Renton." (There are six Japanese characters under William's name.)

It is this inscription that ultimately compelled me to buy the book. I can't read a word of the text, but I know exactly what William was saying to Chester. We share the same passion, and for a moment the language didn't matter.

Myrna also told me about a signed Salvador Dali cocktail book she owned. Sadly, the gambling on this trip was not successful enough to get me that book. She says they just never know what is going to walk through the door, and as long as both she and Lou need to work, they might as well do something they love and be their own bosses.

The other books I returned home with were: Margaret Mitchell Cooking, Electric Refrigerator Recipes, Grand Union Tea Co., Treasury of Great Recipes, Lunch Room, Hotel Faint Francis Cook Book, Woman's Home Companion, 12 Months of Monastery Soups, Good Egg, Meals for Males, Jewish, Rice, Spice & Bitter Oranges, Modern Spice, Anthology of French Cooking, Foods of Vietnam and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.

If you find yourself in Vegas, take a break from the casinos and go visit Myrna and Lou -- she might even invite you to lunch at her favorite little Armenian restaurant around the corner. I'm taking her up on my invite very soon, and I'm sure I will return with a few more books, maybe even some from the glass cabinet.

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Patrise Shuttlesworth