On the busy streets of the Italian Market, there’s a cheery sandwich board that, for a certain type of person, works like a siren song. With coloring and typeface evocative of the classic cover of The Joy of Cooking, the sign invites passersby to “Discover the … joy of cookbooks.” Accept the invitation and you’ll enter Molly’s Books & Records, a multifaceted shop which also happens to be the best cookbook bookstore in Philadelphia.
A third-generation bookseller, owner Molly Russakoff operates her shop as a family business. Her husband Joe Ankenbrand is in charge of the records, and her son Johnny, in addition to collecting movies, is knowledgeable about the entire stock. (Shop cat, Mrs. Stevenson, is the muscle.) Russakoff, an accomplished poet, is responsible for the shop’s literature section, and she counts cookbooks in that category. She also painted that sandwich board, and when I told her how it drew me in, she threw her fists up in triumph and exclaimed, “It worked!”
Inspired by the culinary atmosphere of the store’s location in the Italian Market, Russakoff decided to build up the gastronomic collection, devoting the entire back space of the shop to cookbooks and food writing. I don’t speak Italian but I know the word for such a space: paradiso.
The cookbook selection is both comprehensive and full of surprises. If you’re looking to build up a kitchen library, Molly’s has everything you need but, given the tightness of the space, there’s likely only one copy on the shelf at a time. On the other hand, if you’re a treasure-hunter or a gift-giver, this is the place to go for everything from celebrity cookbooks, like Loretta Lynn’s You’re Cookin’ it Country, to kitschy-cute midcentury pamphlets. Of these, Russakoff’s favorite is “How Famous Chefs Cook with Marshmallows,” published by the Campsite Marshmallow Company in 1930.
Because the entire stock is second-hand, there’s no guarantee you’ll find the exact title you’re looking for. And because the store has no online presence (other than a record-centric Instagram, @mollysbooksandrecords) you’ll have to go in and see for yourself. Asked where she sources her inventory, Russakoff paused, considering whether to share this trade secret. She divulged that the books mainly come from Friends of the Library sales but cautioned, “I work very hard.”
In developing the cookbook offerings, Russakoff prizes global diversity, seeking to explore different cuisines and “represent them as authentically as I can.” The store has shelves devoted to Pennsylvania Dutch, African American, Native American, Jewish, Scandinavian, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisines, among others. At the same time, Russakoff acknowledges that in every genre, from cookbooks to kids’ lit, there are certain perennial favorites that people will always want. “Classic stuff,” she explains. “Marcella. Mastering the Art.” Her son pops out from the back room to add, “Bourdain!”
Whereas used bookstores typically have a charming haphazard quality, Molly’s exudes thoughtfulness and care. The shop as a whole is quite small, the selection dense. The cookbook section can be almost overwhelming— Russakoff’s son says he loves the vastness of the cookbook section, the look of overflowing shelves—so shoppers need time to browse gingerly.
Russakoff is pescatarian and, in her own cooking, relies heavily on the classic vegetarian tome American Wholefoods Cuisine. Funnily enough, the vegetarian shelf abuts the meat and game section, like two judgmental strangers seated together at a dinner party. There are shelves for booze, home brewing and winemaking, tea, coffee, and herbs, a shelf garnished with some witchy titles. Food writing is here defined broadly: that section includes biographies and memoirs, essay collections by writers like MFK Fisher, and reference works. Harold McGee’s groundbreaking On Food and Cooking cowers beneath various imposing editions of Larousse Gastronomique. Books like these make excellent gifts for novices and advanced cooks alike.
Currently at Molly’s there’s a project to weed the cookbooks, clearing out items that have been sitting too long on the shelf in order to make space for interesting new additions. The first fruits of this labor will be a sidewalk sale lasting throughout the holiday season, with rows of high-quality cookbooks available at reduced prices. It’s a great opportunity to try a new cuisine or pick up a book that might be more decorative than instructional. You may never make anything from The Czechoslovak Cookbook by Joza Břižová, it will look cute on your shelf.
Even before the sale, the prices at Molly’s are refreshingly fair. Deborah Madison’s encyclopedic Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone went for $22: the soup chapter alone is worth that much. Of course, the staff is knowledgeable and passionate, and real treasures are priced accordingly. A numbered edition of the limited run From Julia Child’s Kitchen, signed by both Child and her devoted husband, Paul? Priced at $1,200, that one’s not going on the sidewalk any time soon.
Cookbook obsessives might revere such an object, a relic from Saint Julia, but Russakoff says she isn’t tempted to keep it. “I’m not a collector,” she explains. “I love to find things, and then find them a home.” Lucky for us, to the customer go the spoils.