I f you think about it, books and sandwiches have a lot in common. The outside packaging may be attractive, but it’s the filling that matters.
Dave Duda understands that you shouldn’t judge either a novel or a foodstuff by its cover. He’s been dealing with both for decades. First, he was a restaurant manager in central Pennsylvania, where he’s from. Then he got into books, working at Atticus Bookstore Café and Book Haven when he first came to New Haven over 20 years ago. Duda combined both interests when he opened The Book Trader Café on Chapel Street (near the corner of York) in 1998.
“You graduate with an English Lit degree, what else are you going to do?,” he laughs. “You work in restaurants and bookstores.” Store managers Jen Tift (who does the cooking) and Kelly Pyers (who helps sift through all those books) have been with Duda at The Book Trader Cafe for nearly its entire existence.
You can judge a used-book store by how well it keeps up with the changing tastes of readers, and by how often its stock changes over. The Book Trader deals in “gently used” books, ones that have spent tranquil months on bedside tables rather than decades in dusty basements. Now is a particularly good time to browse at Book Trader, since a lot of college students and faculty purge their bookshelves this time of year. Unlike some stores which buy books by the boxload without giving them more than a cursory glance—and unlike a lot of bookstore cafes which use books merely as windowdressing, a genteel environment in which to sell food—at The Book Trader “we evaluate books one by one. We like having academic titles, non-fiction more than fiction. We keep the books reasonably priced.”
When you sell books to The Book Trader, they’ll offer you cash or a 15 percent higher value in store credit. The store isn’t just constantly shelving new titles. Duda demonstrates that “we’re always shifting whole sections around.” The “Biography” section was recently moved to the back wall of The Book Trader’s main eating area, displacing the “Drama” section, which is now housed between the doorways in the same room.
At Book Trader, the literary vibe extends to the menu. The café’s sandwiches are all named for great books or authors. There’s Jane Rare, Melville’s Tuna Fish Mael, Vonnegut’s Veggies, Hamingway & Cheese.
One sandwich which has been on the menu since the café first opened its doors is A Tale of Two Turkeys. Befitting its Dickensian moniker, it comes in two styles: oven-roasted turkey with Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing on onion rye; and smoked turkey with orange-cranberry chutney and field greens on sourdough.
The oven-roasted version will be featured this summer on the new Travel Channel TV series, Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America. The show premieres June 6 with a selection of best-sandwich contenders from the Northeast U.S., though Book Trader’s turn doesn’t come until nearly the end of the series, airing Aug. 8. But the show’s debut led to the Tale of Two Turkeys making a guest appearance this week, alongside Richman, on Al Roker’s Wake Up With Al show on The Weather Channel.
Before becoming a happy-go-lucky TV foodie, Adam Richman studied acting at the Yale School of Drama, where he first got hooked on Book Trader sandwiches. “He ate here all the time. He was in here a lot,” Duda recalls. “The staff definitely remembers him from back then.” When Richman returned to New Haven a couple of years ago to do an episode on Louis’ Lunch and the city’s world-famous pizza restaurants for an earlier Travel Channel series, Man V. Food, the host “ate here every day,” Duda says.
“In fact, he says I started his career,” the booktrader reveals, downplaying the suggestion while savoring the anecdote. “He’d gotten an internship in Minneapolis or somewhere, and couldn’t afford to get there. So he brought in a bunch of his books to sell, and that gave him gas money to leave town.”
Again, books and food go hand in hand. Just remember which one’s in which hand, so you know whether you use a napkin or a bookmark.
The Book Trader Cafe
1140 Chapel St., New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 7:30am-9pm, Sat 9am-9pm, Sun 9am-7pm
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.