Nina Barrett can still remember the first thing she ever baked: sachertorte, a special Viennese chocolate cake, from a recipe in a Time-Life cookbook. It was that sachertorte that started Barrett’s journey from publisher to author to chef to journalist and now to owner of Evanston’s newest independent bookstore.
Although the shop, Bookends and Beginnings, has only been open for five months, Barrett – along with her husband, Jeffrey Garrett – is already a natural at the trade. Subtly modeling pieces of the high-end, colorful jewelry sold in addition to the books and myriad other clever gifts (Sylvia Plath finger puppet, anyone?), Barrett seems as comfortable taking in new orders as she does recommending one of the many beautiful cookbooks the store carries – as if that’s any surprise.
As a teenager, Barrett tried to convince her parents to let her go to culinary school, but instead landed at Yale, where she graduated with a degree in English. Right out of college, she began working in publishing in New York City. After a few years in the business, Barrett decided that she wanted to try her hand at writing and enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism’s graduate program.
After a year in Evanston, an unexpected pregnancy changed her path. Uninterested in starting from the bottom in journalism, she put her background in publishing to work.
“I knew what a nonfiction book proposal was supposed to look like,” Barrett said. “I thought, 'I’ll just write a nonfiction book!'” The first of Barrett’s three books, “I Wish Someone Had Told Me: A Realistic Guide to Early Motherhood,” was published in 1991. Meanwhile, she worked at Women & Children First, a prominent feminist bookseller. “That really gave me a taste of being a bookseller, because it combined … the love of books with a sense of place,” Barrett said.
Through it all, Barrett continued to feel a pull to the culinary world.
“I got to be 45 and thought, 'If I don’t try it now, I’ll always regret it,'” Barrett said. For a year, she did 25 hours per week of chef training – on top of teaching at Northwestern University. “I didn’t care,” Barrett said. “I’d get home at one in the morning after a night in the kitchen and just be completely exhilarated.”
Barrett realized, however, that a love for the kitchen didn’t necessarily make her suited to open her own restaurant.
“Running your own restaurant is like running your own bookstore,” she said. “It’s so much more complicated than anyone who comes at it from the consumer standpoint understands.”
Instead, her culinary skills, paired with her writing experience, landed her a job as a food features contributor for Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. When looking for inspiration for one of her first pieces, Barrett picked up a newly-published cookbook from the owner of The Berghoff, a famous German restaurant in downtown Chicago.
“I thought it was kind of funny because first of all, German cuisine has such a terrible reputation," she said. "And also, half of the recipes in the cookbook had nothing to do with German cuisine at all." The owner of the restaurant had inserted recipes for her catering business into the cookbook as well, which made for a “very schizophrenic” mix.
“So I came up with this idea that we would have a dinner party, and I would cook a whole menu from the German section of the cookbook and cook another whole menu from the non-German section of the cookbook,” Barrett said. She invited friends with any sort of German connection and let them decide which menu they preferred. She and Jason DeRose, then an Arts and Culture Editor for WBEZ, interviewed the guests after the dinner, which created her pilot piece.
“It was hilarious because these recipes were terrible, and everyone said that very frankly,” Barrett said. “It was a very funny story.”
After the dinner party fiasco, Barrett was hooked on audio storytelling and on creating pieces about “encounters with food like any other person would have an encounter with food in their own kitchen.” This lead to the creation of a six-part series called “Fear of Frying,” which resulted in two James Beard Foundation Awards. “She has a real love of the subject matter, but she doesn’t expect the listeners to love it as much as she does,” DeRose said. “What she really works to do is to help them understand why they should love it.”
Upon winning her second award, Barrett was invited to join Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a select organization of women leaders in the food industry. As a new initiate, she was given an index of each member, including “every single famous woman” in food, which she was paging through when she stumbled upon the name of the woman who wrote the first cookbook Barrett owned.
“I wrote her an email, and I said … I just had to sit right down and write to you because I’m pretty sure you’re the author of ‘Teen Cuisine,’ the book that taught me how to make a cheese soufflé and sent me down this road, and now I’m a member!” Barrett said, adding that the woman responded to Barrett’s fan mail with a heartfelt note. “It was so, so great."
After a few years in public radio, Barrett was ready for a new adventure. Simultaneously, Bookman’s Alley, a time-honored Evanston bookstore, came up for sale. Barrett and her husband decided to buy the space and make it their own.
The shop, only in its infancy, already feels like a favorite grandmother’s living room: thick rugs cover creaky wood floors, soft jazz tinkles quietly, light from the windows takes on a magical, dusty quality. Without hesitation, Barrett can point out the perfect book for each customer, describing each edition as if they are old friends. Of course, some are, like the set of Time-Life cookbooks in the food section – perfect replicas of the one she used to make that first sachertorte.
Although she hopes to have time to write more in the future, Barrett said she wants to be a bookseller as long as she can.
“There is something incredibly wonderful about having your own business and having it be a business that you believe in as much as I believe in this,” she said.