In truth there is no art to it at all, it's more a developed skill mixed with solid hunches. As a veteran buyer at Moe's Books for the past 30 years it has fallen to me to buy the lion's share of used and rare cookbooks offered us. Over time I have established some criteria to guide my buying. Our cookbook section is surely the best of any general used or new bookshop in Northern California and keeping it that way requires persistent attention to the fashions and fads in food that come and go with some regularity. So the primary need is always to be aware of what is the latest food buzz and what has passed into the trash bin of food history. In other words--you need to pay attention!
The past twenty years have seen remarkable advances in the production of the once humble cookbook. We have armies of food stylists, high resolution photography, advanced computer technology, and superb printing presses that make these books more akin to art books than practical instructional titles. And therein lies the second secret to buying cookbooks: modern cookbooks are not really about cooking, they are about fantasy, armchair food warriors delighting in the opportunity to experience high-end cooking through the spectacular production values of contemporary books. In buying books for resale it follows that our customers are not going to be very interested in modern books lacking the values which can allow them to pursue their armchair cooking fantasies; in other words, books with poor design, garish or insipid photography and unattractive production values will likely be unsalable and that has proven to be the case at Moe's.
There are of course exceptions to the pretty book rule and this requires a little more knowledge of food history and some familiarity with the historical pillars of the cookbook world. To buy food books effectively you need to know that "Joy of Cooking" is always in demand and that Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is a perennial seller, that Harold Mcgee's food science titles are in constant demand as are M. F. K. Fisher's and Anthony Bourdain's and Waverly Root's treatises on French and Italian cuisine and Elizabeth David's beautifully written books and essays on European food. A buyer might be forgiven not knowing the work of the legendary 19th century French writer Urbain Dubois but it would be unfortunate if he missed the significance of Marcella Hazan or Diana Kennedy and Paula Wolfert. There are scores of others which are essential to keeping a well-stocked food section; some are out-of-print and command high prices when they show up, others periodically get reprinted to acquaint a new generation with their importance.
Moe's is fortunate to have other buyers who are well versed in the literature of food and cooking. Ken Eastman is a serious and passionate cook, does catering from time to time, cooked professionally for a period and has a serious interest in food history. His knowledge of the literature of food and cooking is formidable and Moe's is fortunate to have him as a buyer. Another staff member, Harvey Stafford, has cooked professionally for several years and also has a wide knowledge of culinary literature. Together, our buying staff is about good as it gets in the general book world. We maintain a high standard in what we offer for sale to our customers, price the desirable books fairly and the rare books realistically in line with what the market demands. Anyone interested in the culinary arts would do well to pay us a visit and spend some time browsing the hundreds of titles we offer for sale.