If Amber Unicorn Books were a buffet and its cookbooks actual foods, the veteran Las Vegas used bookstore would be the most eclectic, most internationally themed restaurant in Las Vegas.
Pick a cuisine from classic French to classic down-home Americana, vegan to unapologetic carnivorous or midcentury housewife home ec to modern-day hipster haute, and not only will Myrna Donato have a cookbook for it somewhere among the 16,000 or so that she stocks, she’ll probably be able to tell you, from memory, how legit the recipes in it are.
The bookstore is a mecca for such major culinary names as chef Mario Batali and food writer Ruth Reichl, who in 2012 wrote an appreciation of the Amber Unicorn for Saveur, as well as Las Vegas chefs and anybody else who has a passion for cooking or eating.
“It’s like you walk in and it’s something you never expect to see,” said chef Paul Bartolotta, formerly of Bartolotta’s Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn.
One of his very first finds was an Italian cookbook by Luigi Carnacina written in English — he already owned the Italian language version — “and it was just all yellow, and it was showing its age, but I had to have it.”
More trips followed, “and whenever I go there, there’s always something,” Bartolotta said. “You could get lost in that place for hours.”
“It’s not a bookstore, it’s an outing, a place where every corner, every shelf is filled with something she’s chosen. It’s not just random stuff to fill the shelf.”
Las Vegas restaurateur and restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau and her chef-husband, Kim Canteenwalla — their Las Vegas restaurants include Honey Salt, Buddy V’s Ristorante and Andiron Steak & Sea — are customers, too.
“I really can’t think of a store that has a bigger cookbook section,” Blau said. “We have been patrons for many years. It’s quite extraordinary.”
Blau considers the shop amazing not just for the diversity and extent of the collection but also the knowledge and enthusiasm of its co-owner.
“Myrna is so amazing,” Blau says. “She’s a treasure. It’s unbelievable and really cool. I’ve brought chefs from out of town over, and people are just blown away.”
Famed Chicago chef Louis Szathmary “used to come in all the time,” Myrna says, and celebrity chef Mario Batali also stopped by once.
“He put me to the test,” Myrna says. “He said, ‘There’s a book I’m looking for and I’ll bet you can’t find it.’ I should have bet him a dinner, but I didn’t. I just said, ‘You’re on.’ ”
“Well, I found it for him, and he said, ‘There’s no way.’ I said, ‘Come out to the store. I’ve got it for you.’ ”
Stacks and stacks
Most of the cookbooks are easily accessible in the main store at 2101 S. Decatur Blvd., No. 14. But the Donatos also lease a storefront next door for additional and as-yet unclassified cookbooks. Those two spaces, plus an additional storefront to the west, bring Amber Unicorn’s total retail space to about 4,800 square feet.
Among Amber Unicorn’s visitors have been “chefs from all over the world,” Myrna says. Her husband, Lou, recalls that, not long after Amber Unicorn opened at its original location at Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard, a chef stopped in and left with about 10 cookbooks.
“He was one of the first chefs in here, and Myrna, after the transaction, got a stack of cards in her hand and offered them to him to give to his friend chefs,” Lou says. “He said, ‘Hell, no. This is my gold mine. I’m not telling them.’ ”
Nonetheless, Myrna says, laughing, “word got out really quick.”
Selling cookbooks is a natural for Myrna, who started cooking when she was 10 years old and who, from age 10 to 15, was Nebraska state bread baking champion.
“So I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and had I not gotten married really young I’d have been a home ec teacher.”
Myrna, who still cooks a from-scratch dinner almost every night, says she reads cookbooks “like normal people read books.” Her own preference is for cookbooks of the ’70s and before because, “all of the recipes were tested. A lot of these new cookbooks come out, and recipes aren’t tested.”
The Donatos’ goal is, of course, to find homes for their cookbooks, although Myrna admits that she has been sorry to see a few of them go. Salvador Dali’s 1973 “Les Diners de Gala,” for instance.
“It was signed by him, still in its original brown wrapper and the original mailer,” Myrna says. “That went for a real pretty penny — $4,200 in fact.
“Yeah, it’s nice on your shelf,” Myrna says, smiling. “But that paid a lot of bills.”
Best sellers; old stories
The Amber Unicorn’s collection of about 16,000 cookbooks covers just about every form of cooking, eating and entertaining imaginable.
“I mean, there aren’t too many sections I don’t have,” says Myrna Donato, who owns the store with her husband, Lou.
Vegan cookbooks are big, Donato says, and so are wild game cookbooks. Jewish cookbooks are “always good,” and soul food cookbooks — Patti Labelle’s series, for example — are consistently good sellers.
“Japanese cookbooks sell really well … French (ones) come and goes. German cookbooks, hardly ever. Russian cookbooks would sell if I could get any.”
One of the stranger cookbooks Donato has come across was one devoted to slug cuisine. “Well, basically, they’re the same as snails without the shell,” she figures.
There’s an interesting story behind a cookbook by actor/gourmet Vincent Price. Years ago, browsers who knew Price suggested that Donato offer it to him, because he didn’t have his own copy.
“I wrote him later and told him how much I enjoyed his movies and said, ‘I need to tell you, I’ve got your book on sale and I’ll sell you the book for what I have in it,’ which, at that time, was $30. He sent me a postcard back, saying, ‘Thank you for the offer, but I’d never pay that much for that book.’ “
Sometimes, a cookbook offers an oddity unrelated to the recipes it contains. “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cook Book,” for example, which features illustrations by Andy — here, “Andrew” — Warhol “before he became Andy Warhol,” Donato says.
And if the store were to catch fire and she could rescue only one cookbook? Donato laughs.
“That’d be hard,” she says, because “I’ve got a couple of $600 ones up there.”
But her favorite cookbook? “You know, I still am partial to my Betty Crocker,” she says. “That’s what I learned to cook from when I was a kid.”
Read more from John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.
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