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Craving a good cookbook? // Savor this

Before I wrote this, I nuked a plastic plate of Lean Cuisine macaroni and cheese, wolfed it down, and chased it with a mug of black, decaffeinated coffee, artificially sweetened.

This was lunch; also sacrilege, at least to a good cook.

We all eat like this. And secretly hate it. Perhaps that explains why Lynn Cooper, in a world in which people have no time to cook, is making a living out of selling cookbooks.

Her store, Out-of-Print Cookbooks, is in a small concrete block building on a forlorn stretch of U.S. 301 east of Tampa, between a store selling metaphysical books and another one selling used toilets and other appliances. The toilets are out on the lawn.

Lynn used to specialize in old records, and still sells some, so inside her shop Ricky Nelson grins his black and white, album-sized, 35-year-old grin down on spiral-bound works such as A Cook's Tour of Muncie. It is in the section on cookbooks put together by organizations, women's clubs, church groups, Republicans, the wives of Air Force pilots, and the winners of Pillsbury Bake-offs and a baking powder manufacturer.

The walls are lined with shelves and the shelves are lined with cookbooks grouped by categories. The categories are the mark of a terrifyingly well-organized mind, but Lynn protested at that.

"My love life has had its ups and downs," she said, "so I'm not that organized."

Her outdoor sign to the contrary, she also sells new cookbooks, for a third off, and they are mixed in with the old. Cookbooks on baking. Breads. Barbecue. Desserts. Grilling. Indian. Italian. James Beard. Julia Child. Betty Crocker. The New York Times series. Low-fat. African-American. Vegetarian. Cajun.

Because kitchens are where we live, cookbooks tell us how we live. Now _ in the age of microwave _ and before. Lynn has one shelf of cookbooks more than 100 years old. They contain recipes without cooking temperatures, advice on throwing charcoal in a pot to sweeten old meat, and recommendations on naming and raising children, what to discuss at dinner and the necessity of courage.

I read cookbooks even when I do not cook, particularly when I am running low on that thing, courage, and need to hide temporarily from whatever problem is looming. Better to sit in a ball and imagine the taste of a cream sauce or the look of a roast, or the combination of flavors that make Indian food or even what made your mother's meatloaf taste like hers and nobody else's. If you can cook, you can feed yourself, and if you can feed yourself you can survive.

Being crazy for cookbooks is no crazier than selling them, even if you spent most of your life waiting tables, selling drinks, not food.

"What did I know about books? I was a cocktail waitress," Lynn said with a hard laugh. "I didn't know anything."

Now she knows how to iron dustjackets and what slobs most cooks are. "I have scraped so much food out of cookbooks! If there's a glob in there," she said, picking up the single edge razor she uses to get the globs out, "it will eat right through the page."

Yes, selling only cookbooks is no stranger than selling only guns, cigars, trading cards or baby clothes, or collecting them. Lynn once bought a collection of cookbooks from a woman who decorated her house in owls. Owl lamps. Owl towels. Owl soaps.

"It was a real nightmare."

Which brings me to Lynn's dream. In it, the store is cavernous. It is as grand as Service Merchandise or Marshall's, or maybe even _ impossible dream, this probably is _ Home Depot. The blacktop parking lot, with the parallel stripes of each space painted a gleaming white, spreads as far as anyone can see.

On top of the building, a huge illuminated globe spins while happy customers wheel in the revolving doors below and step inside.

Cookbook World, Lynn will call it, and when strangers laugh at her, she'll smile and run her fingers across the bindings of all the cookbooks you can imagine, old and new, and microwave.