Fifteen years ago, at an event promoting her new young adult novel, Hillary Frank smiled for the camera and leaned closer to the other star of the night – a giant cake modeled after the book. The blue-and-black cake looked like a larger-than-life-sized copy of her book, I Can’t Tell You. To a packed house at The Book Cellar, then a fledgling shop in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, Frank talked about her book and then the crowd ate it up.
The author “was floored” when she first saw it. Thus began a decades-long Book Cellar tradition, in which the store’s owner, Suzy Takacs, commissions large, hyper-realistic book cakes to serve during author events one-to-four times a month for over a decade.
“We had cake and wine and it felt like a real book party,” Frank wrote in an email. “Like, I conquered this book so hard that I am literally eating it for dessert!”
Seated at a wooden café table in her bookstore, flanked by cardboard promotional posters of books such as Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy and Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide To Eating, Drinking & Going With Your Gut, Takacs tells me that, to her, “a cake means a party. But maybe, she continues “it’s an old-fashioned thought now.”
The Book Cellar’s small café is squeezed in a corner between tall bookshelves. A reading near the front windows features weathered, but cushiony chairs. The bookstore overflows with books, the book towers creating tiny lanes for walking passage. The Book Cellar isn’t a “cellar,” but the stacks of books do seemingly block light, creating the feeling of stepping into a book cave. Takacs’ space offers an in-person literary experience that online customers simply can’t get.
Takacs came up with the idea to do cakes shortly before the Frank event. She felt they created a human connection that neither box-stores nor retail giants could provide. Since opening the store in June 2004, Takacs has weathered competition from corporations pitching book-selling efficiency at scale. Those who witnessed Fox Books destroy The Shop Around the Corner in the 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail may find solace in the continued survival of The Book Cellar.
Amazon increasingly dominates the bookselling marketplace, bringing new challenges for Takacs. Customers expect their purchases to appear at their door, without understanding the human toll such business practices take: delivery drivers having to urinate in bottles (as various outlets have reported) and causing vehicle crashes that have resulted in deaths (as The New York Times and ProPublica jointly reported in 2019).
This September, Amazon further angered book sellers across the globe when the company broke an embargo and sold early copies of “The Testaments,” Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The online store had much to gain by selling the highly anticipated novel first. Though the company claimed the early release was a mistake, Amazon got yet another advantage over its brick-and-mortar competitors by teaching customers, however unfairly, that those who buy with Amazon will get their products faster.
Takacs shared her frustration: “There had been a lot of angry texts back and forth between me and others of my book store owner friends. It’s disturbing that [Amazon] do not follow the rules. I am sure if I did the same, I would never receive books before the ‘on sale” date ever again. In fact, we did not even receive our boxes until the day before the ‘on sale’ date.”
Last fall, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” chose The Book Cellar for the launch of his book, The Incomplete Book of Running, because of the way Takacs treated him more than a decade prior during an event for his 2007 title, The Book of Vice.
“I remember being flattered and amazed by the [“Book of Vice”] cake when I arrived,” Sagal recalled in an email. “In a weird way, it made me feel like a ‘real author’ more than the actual book did.”
Chicago actually has a long tradition of bookstores supporting authors.
Liesl Olson, the Director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library, wrote the 2017 book Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis, which documented the ways bookstores and other small businesses helped the careers of Chicago’s most-famed writers including Gwendolyn Brooks, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg.
Olson devoted a whole chapter to Fanny Butcher, a book critic laid off by The Chicago Tribune just shy of her 50th anniversary with the newspaper. Olson argued Butcher’s important place in the Chicago literary community, even making a case that Hemingway’s use of second person in his fiction was addressed, at least in part, to Butcher as the “you.” For a few years, Butcher also operated a small bookstore on Michigan Avenue near The Art Institute of Chicago. That space is now occupied by a Starbucks.
Butcher wrote in her 1972 memoir, Many Lives, One Love that she thought of her store as a meeting place for the literary community. “It had become practically a club,” she wrote. “People met their friends there, left messages, sat (or mostly stood), and talked. It was something new and special.”
For gift wrap, she ordered gold and silver tea-box paper imported from China, a decadence Butcher claims that Chicago hadn’t seen before.
“We charged twenty-five cents to wrap a package in the unheard-of-splendor, and lost money on the deal,” Butcher wrote. “But it was worth it. People who had never heard of the shop before became book-carrying members of the shop’s union.” Although the paper made each sale a little less profitable, the grand personal gesture elevated the overall customer experience.
Sagal said that his love for The Book Cellar ties directly to the cakes, which he found “quite tasty.”
“The cakes are a big part,” Sagal said. “I think everybody should make custom cakes in the shape of books to honor authors.”
Since Frank’s I Can’t Tell You, The Book Cellar has commissioned two local bakeries for its cakes. Takacs first worked with Mary and Brenda Maher – the “Cakegirls” as they’ve branded themselves in business and Food Network appearances — until their popular Lakeview store burned down in March 2010. In February 2014, Takacs began commissioning Kristen Budzynski. At the time, Budzynski had yet to open her own bakery, The Purple Tulip Cakery in Norwood Park. She was still making cakes in her own kitchen.
Her dining room became her “cake studio,” reserved for decorating. “It definitely displaced people because there wasn’t much room in the house,” Budzynski said over the phone.
As with writing, baking a hyper-realistic book cake is the product of an involved, multi-step process. Budzynski first bakes two 9×13 inch cakes and spreads a filling between them. Then she covers the stack with a chocolate ganache for a “firmer foundation than just butter cream.” A white fondant wraps around one long side for the pages, and she uses a special rolling pin inherited from another baker to create grooves. More fondant goes around the remaining sides as a book cover. Finally, she cuts fondant letters in approximations of the books’ typefaces, mixing the colors by hand to match the book cover and hand painting the rest on yet more fondant.
Budzynski taught herself to paint from YouTube videos and meticulous trial and error. “I learned that I could paint better than I thought,” she says.
Neither Takacs nor Budzynski were willing to divulge the price of their agreement, but custom fondant cakes typically cost hundreds of dollars. With this tradition spanning over a decade and involving multiples cakes per year, the overall cost is likely in the many thousands. That kind of money means nothing to Amazon, but for a small bookstore, it’s a big price to pay. That said, although the tradition certainly supports writers, perhaps it does help The Book Cellar stand out from the online retailer.
“Offering fans of authors and books a place to meet the writer and have an event or discussion is something I can do that Amazon does not,” Takacs said.
When Frank recently returned to The Book Cellar to promote her 2019 book, Weird Parenting Wins, Takacs surprised her with another cake.
Underneath the icing, the cake was “tie-dyed” to match the overlapping dots on the book cover. Frank thinks it was vanilla, but knew it was good. “The cake and icing hit that holy grail of yummy-but-not-too-sweet.”
Frank, a former reporter at the Chicago-based “This American Life,” left the city not too long after the original 2004 event. Takacs arrived at her doorstep with empty book boxes to help with the move, an act Takacs has done many times for many neighbors over the years in Chicago.
As the sole owner of a small bookshop, Takacs can’t show up to everyone’s door with packages ordered mere hours ago, but as Frank put it, she certainly knows how to offer a “sweet” gesture.