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The Bibliophile

Sebastopol's Ben Kinmont is the world's premier rare food and wine bookseller

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The Fed-Ex package delivered to Ben Kinmont's eponymously named bookshop doesn't look like much. It's about the size of large sandwich. Kinmont removes the white plastic sleeve to reveal a manila envelope. Like a Russian doll, underneath that layer is another. Once he takes that off—a colorful wrapping of striped paper—a thin layer of tissue is all that remains. Obviously, someone took pains to bundle up this package.

Finally the object was revealed: a stout book with a leathery, almost waxy cover made from stiff vellum.

Vellum is made from sheepskin, and is an ancient book-cover material. The book came from a bookseller and friend of Kinmont's in Madrid. It's a first edition of Arte de Cozina written by Francisco Martínez Montiño, head chef for King Philip III of Spain. It was published in 1611. That's right. It's a 404-year-old cookbook, a piece of art and history you can make dinner from tonight.

There are only three other copies known to exist, two of which are in national libraries in Spain. The price? Twenty-five thousand dollars.

"What's extremely sexy about this book for me is it's the first edition of a book that went into certainly more than 50 different editions," says Kinmont. "So to find the first edition of one these few titles is really rare and unusual."

Kinmont, 51, a thin, soft-spoken man with graying hair that he tucks behind his ears, is an antiquarian bookseller who specializes in food and wine books from the 15th to the early 19th centuries. Quite the niche.

"I think the early books have a more interesting story to tell. Books prior to 1840 were better made."

His knowledge of rare books and gastronomy make him one of the top antiquarian booksellers anywhere.

"He's certainly the best in the world in my opinion," says Jonathan Hill, a New York–based bookseller who specializes in antiquarian science books. First edition works from Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton have passed through his hands. Serious books.

Hill was Kinmont's mentor for 12 years and encouraged Kinmont to open his own bookshop. "I said, 'You really have a gift to be a first-class bookseller on your own,'" Hill says. "And he is."

"As a food and wine lover myself, I've always been drawn to Kinmont's eye," says Susan Benne, executive director of New York's Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. "He has an excellent eye."

Kinmont acknowledges the education he got from Hill. He began by "koshering" books, checking to see if the books were complete and intact. Sometimes, facsimiles of damaged pages are sewn into the binding, dramatically diminishing their value. Kinmont also researched books to confirm what edition they were. Koshering is the heart of dealing in rare books.

"That's how you judge one bookseller next to another, their ability to do that," he says.

When it came time to strike out on his own, Kinmont had to choose a specialty.

"In the rare-book world, you must decide, when you leave your mentor, do you burn your bridges or continue to stay close to your mentor."

Rather than sell rare science books and compete with Hill, Kinmont decided to focus on food and wine.

"I chose to continue to be close my mentor," he says.

They're still good friends today.

Kinmont notes that it was also important to choose a subject he was excited about, and clearly gastronomy is something that excites him.

"Unlike most fields in the rare-book world, when you look at a cookbook, you can actually cook from it," he says. "There's something wonderfully accessible about gastronomy and cookery that doesn't exist in most subjects." One of Kinmont's favorite dishes is for a sweet omelet, which he cooks for his children, that he found in a 19th-century English manuscript.

As the rare-book world has become more globalized and specialized over the past 30 years, many bookshops have closed, and it's now hard for the public to see antiquarian books. Even though few people walk in off the street to buy a $10,000 book on potato cookery, Kinmont says it's important to have a public face. His shop ("Open by chance and appointment" reads the lettering on the glass front door) is at the Barlow in Sebastopol. However, he's planning to leave the Barlow in the next six to 12 months because of what he says are continually escalating common area fees at the retail complex. He'll relocate to a new shop he's building behind his home on North Main Street.

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