vanchovy photo by virginia harold for vanchovy

Vanchovy is a secondhand cookbook store on wheels rolling around St. Louis

Stephanie McKinney loves cookbooks and wants to share that passion with like-minded people in St. Louis with Vanchovy, the mobile cookbook store she operates out of a 1992 Honda Acty Kei van. Vanchovy debuted with pop-ups at May’s Night Market and Clements Lock & Security in early May, and McKinney will be appearing at more events around town in the coming months.

McKinney said her love of cookbooks began with her enjoyment of cooking and enjoying food with friends. “I love cooking. I cook all the time at home,” she said. “I collect cookbooks, and I like reading cookbooks.” A trip to San Francisco’s Omnivore Books, a goldmine for new and used cookbooks, inspired her to open her own cookbook store in St. Louis. However, conscious of the expense and risk involved in taking on a lease on a brick-and-mortar, McKinney instead settled on the idea of using a Kei van (a compact style of van imported from Japan, also used by Izumi in St. Louis).

Kei vans aren’t too readily available in the United States, but McKinney and her husband, Graham, tracked one down in Pittsburgh and brought it back to St. Louis on a trailer. “They have to be at least 25 years old to be imported,” she said. “It’s a ’92, so it’s been around.” The couple worked on the van through the winter, including adding the white van’s signature yellow, orange, pink and red striping. “Everything’s original inside, it’s a fun little van, it fits so much stuff, which is great,” she said.

With the van in place, McKinney also started amassing Vanchovy’s stock of secondhand cookbooks. “I will have new cookbooks as well, but at the moment I just have used and vintage,” she said. She estimates she currently has between 300 and 450 books, and welcome donations. “People are donating cookbooks to me, so it's a little bit of this, a little bit of that, which is really great. I’ve talked to and met so many people just picking up cookbooks.” McKinney said she’s interested in cookbooks that represent and tell the stories of cuisines from around the world. “I especially like reading cookbooks that tell a story about someone's culture, history or anything like that,” she said. 

In addition to cookbooks, Vanchovy also stocks other items including Big Heart Tea and a selection of tinned fish. “I'm just trying to create in my mind what a bookstore experience is, like having a cup of tea and just being able to buy little kitchen things, food items,” McKinney said.

McKinney said she would eventually like to open a brick-and-mortar store, as well as organizing events with cookbook authors and dinners based around selected cookbooks. For now though, she’s just setting about finding and building a community of local cookbook enthusiasts around her little Kei van. “I feel like if you’re interested in cooking and you’re interested in cookbooks, you found the right place.”

Follow Vanchovy on Instagram or Facebook for the latest information on pop-up appearances. Email or contact Vanchovy via social media if you have cookbooks you’d like to donate.

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