The elegant storefront at 30 Pinckney St. in Charleston, S.C., houses the sales office for the Olde Towne Carriage Co., one of what seems like a gazillion businesses in the Holy City that will sell you a buggy ride. When I visited last month, rarely did I see an employee inside the store — only old-timey knickknacks, framed photos, rusty horseshoes and children’s clothing, all for sale.
There’s just one reason to stop at this place if you’re not into carriages: 30 Pinckney St. used to be the address of Hoppin’ John’s, John Martin Taylor’s quirky culinary bookstore that, for 13 years, was a magnet for chefs, home cooks, journalists and anyone else with a thirst for cookbooks and kitchen literature.
Almost everyone I spoke with in Charleston had memories of the place, which was, during its run, one of the few bookstores devoted to cooking literature. Chief among the memorists was Taylor’s sister, Susan Highfield, who ran the store in its latter years as her brother worked on writing projects. Highfield met me at the address, and because it was empty, we talked privately for well over an hour.
As Highfield walked around the carriage company’s office, she described how the U-shaped space looked during its Hoppin’ John’s heyday; as she talked, I could almost see this genteel-and-generic tourist store assume its old sloppy-artist persona, stuffed with books and newspaper clippings and boho wannabes of every stripe.
Highfield said that in the back room, which was her brother’s apartment when the store opened in 1986, Taylor had painted leopard and zebra skins on the floor. (Taylor later described them more as trompe l’oeil paintings, which made it look as though the floor was covered with zebra and cheetah rugs.) There were thousands of books crammed into the small space, she recalled.
“There were bookcases everywhere,” she said. “We had books from around the world.”
Chefs, famous or not, stopped at the bookstore to browse the shelves, she recalled, dropping names such as Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad, Robert Carter of Carter’s Kitchen and Mike Lata of Fig. She later e-mailed me a more extensive list of chefs who wandered into Hoppin’ John’s: Emeril Lagasse, Bill Neal, Frank Stitt, Stephan Pyles, Ella Brennan and many others.
The chef visits were all his sister’s doing, Taylor noted. They rarely visited when he was running the place. “When she took over the store, she developed a relationship with chefs, not only in Charleston but all over the country,” he told me during a phone interview from Bulgaria, where he lives.
Chefs may have shied away from Hoppin’ John’s during Taylor’s occupancy for one reason: The bookstore proprietor rarely visited their dining rooms. Taylor’s busy schedule — writing, cooking, entertaining, running the store — didn’t leave much time for formal dining, even if he liked to eat at restaurants (which he really doesn’t). He was spending a lot of time testing and perfecting his own recipes.
Highfield showed me the room where Taylor did all his cooking: It’s the size of a small walk-in closet, with little counter space, a single sink and barely enough space to turn around. And this is the new-and-improved carriage company version, not Taylor’s original kitchen (which included a cheap electric stove). The author figured he worked on at least 1,000 recipes in this kitchen, including all the dishes for his four cookbooks.
“It was, in fact, a converted closet,” Taylor said. “I entertained hundreds of people out of that kitchen.”
At one point in the bookstore’s existence — probably around 1996 — Taylor bought the building that housed his business, including the upstairs. He moved his living quarters to the second floor and converted his former apartment into a small cooking school (after he painted over the fake animal rugs). He continued to cook in the small galley kitchen downstairs.
“I’ve always been a galley cook,” said Taylor, who cooked on his parents’ boat as well as on a commercial Trumpy yacht early in his career. “I’ve always liked small kitchens.”
His worst moment at Hoppin’ John’s came on Sept. 22, 1989, when Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast. In a 1992 feature about Taylor, the Los Angeles Times wrote:
It was the event by which Taylor to this day measures everything else in his life — “before” and “after.” He had gotten inland to Columbia before the storm winds ripped onshore at 100 miles an hour, but had been able to salvage little else. Even now he has trouble describing the bomb-site vision of Pinckney Street.
A year later, Hoppin’ John’s would reopen and remain open for another nine years. Debbie Marlowe, Taylor’s longtime friend and the owner of the Wine Shop of Charleston, told me that Hoppin’ John’s was where many folks came to do their research. “His store was the Internet before the Internet,” she said.
Taylor was also smart: He saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, for bricks-and-mortar booksellers. He closed his shop in 1999 before bookstores, large and small, were made irrelevant by online retailers such as Amazon.
“He was ahead of his time getting out of the retail [book] business,” quipped Matt Lee, one half of the food-writing Lee Bros., who knows something about selling books.