ONCE upon a time, I wandered into a bookshop and purchased a book published in 1947. It was written by Margaret Yardley Potter, a woman who drank too much and smoked too much, but who could fashion an elaborate meal from the most basic of ingredients, and who understood the power of eating together around the table — for two people or 20.
The book was Home On The Range, authored by the great great grandmother of Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. The shop was The Time Travellers Bookshop in Skibbereen. In December, 2018, the bookshop reimagined itself as Antiquity Vegan Café & Bookshop, an idea that sprang forth during family meals around the kitchen table.
It is a family affair: mum, dad, two daughters and two sons, working both arms of the business — books and food; the idea for the café came from Madlyn, the youngest daughter.
Following a difficult season, Nicola Smyth and her husband Holger, were contemplating giving up the bricks and mortar bookshop business to focus on building book collections for other people instead.
Nicola says: “When our kids reach 18, they receive a ‘set-up’ gift: my eldest daughter Shawn attended the Ballymaloe Cookery Course and absolutely loved it, and my youngest daughter, Madlyn, received books from Holger and I so she could set up her own little online book business.
“We were planning on retreating from bookselling. We asked Madlyn if she wanted to take over the business from us, but she said she didn’t want to sit in a shop all day waiting for customers. Could we turn it into a vegan café, and do it together instead?
“We just thought it was a genius idea. Four weeks before last Christmas, the girls and I re-opened as Antiquity Vegan Café & Bookshop!”
Nicola is originally from Kilmarnock in Scotland, home of Johnnie Walker whisky, but grew up in Germany, where she met her husband. Currently, Shawn and Madlyn are travelling in Australia and Portugal, so Nicola has her sons Connor, 19, and Junah,17, helping her run the café while the girls are away.
Nicola has a relaxed, easygoing manner. Maybe it has something to do with being surrounded by books all day, or the soothing, soft jazzy sounds emanating from hidden places. The café itself is open and welcoming, flooded with natural light.
The first thing that greets you as you walk in is that beautiful musty aroma of old books; but suddenly it’s light and airy with the tantalising scent of freshly filtered coffee, warming spiced stews and fresh, vibrant salads. The smiles come free of charge!
To sit and eat, the diner must choose one of three communal tables that fill the space, surrounded by books with intriguing titles, such as Electricity For Women, dated 1927. The wifi password, should you need it, is ‘readabook’ which immediately makes you question the sanity of staring into your phone screen when the words of ages surround you.
“We always have family dinners at the table,” says Nicola. “There’s always at least once a day when we sit together, and it doesn’t matter if it’s just bread, a set of hummus and sauces, kale from the garden or we make scrambled tofu. But we always make sure to sit together — we’re big fans of eating round the table. Food has become something that people snatch on the go, but taking time to eat together around the table offers more than just nourishment from the food we eat.
“Of course, sometimes the kids will ask to eat their food in front of the telly because they want to watch a movie, but I say to them: start eating with us and after five or ten minutes you can scoot into the living room and watch your movie then. But they usually end up staying because we’re big talkers, we talk about everything! It’s the only time of the day when you get us all together, and then that’s when you get all these crazy business ideas pop up.”
For Nicola, eating at the table is about creating a positive lifestyle for her family, taking that all important time out in the day to reconnect with each other through the community of food.
“Kids don’t listen to what you say, they watch, and learn, from your actions,” says Nicola.
Lifetime vegetarians, plant-based eating entered their lives after Shawn and Madlyn researched the health properties and fitness benefits of eating vegan when they were 14 and 16.
“They were OK with the rest of us being vegetarian,” says Nicola, “but then one day we watched Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy and a few other documentaries, and it really got us questioning. I just decided that this was it, we should really do it, and that’s the way I’ve been cooking ever since!
“You can give me a recipe from any cookbook and I’ll make it vegan. There was a period of transition, and I had to do a lot of research, testing and trial and error. I also had to get myself off parmesan and butter, that was really difficult, especially butter! But it takes 21 days exactly to break a habit and the minute you reach the 22nd day and you think about food that you’ve stopped eating, you have an ‘Urgh’ feeling and yearn for natural freshness.
“Now I make my own cheese out of almond and cashew nuts, lots of nutritional yeast, natural flavourings, such as smoke, roasted peppers and lots of fresh herbs. We eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drink juices and smoothies in the morning, and then it’s all about getting in your carbs and proteins. The perfect meal is a grain, a protein (lentil or tofu) and lots of dark green veggies. All together that is a full meal with all the amino acids that you need.”
The lure of a healthy, balanced, filling and delicious plate of food has meant that many of Nicola’s customers are, in fact, non-vegan.
“I have customers come in from the offices around here for their lunch. I actually think it’s not about being a vegan café anymore, I think people want to put their money into experiences and good food.
“Maybe we’ve hit the nerve with people, that when you come in here it’s an experience in itself. Even if you they just come and drink a cup of tea, surf the web, write an article or read.
“It’s funny because we’ve been here as a bookshop for so long, but quite a few of our customers may never have stepped once into the shop when it was a bookshop, but they come regularly into the café.
“Our lunchtime customers get served pretty fast, because everything is fresh, and out they are after about 40 minutes, but they’re rejuvenated: they like the music, they like the atmosphere; we’re not hectic, we move very slowly because I want people to come in on their lunchbreak and really switch off. And they obviously can here, and maybe that wasn’t our intention from the beginning, maybe this has just happened that way.
“The communal tables work amazingly: people actually have conversations, they’re starting to talk to each other again, and it makes me so happy — I do a little dance when I can see people who don’t know each other talking!”
Food served in the café is all about balance and good, sustaining food.
“At the moment, our customers’ favourites are our Powerbowls: a grain, a protein and lots of herbs. Every day, we have a Chunky Vegetable Stew with whole grain rice and topped with herbs and pesto. Our Smorresbrod is an Open Wholegrain Sandwich with Tamari Mushrooms, side salads and sauce. For sweet treats, we have our Chocolate Cherry Cake and Snicky’s, (a vegan Snickers bar), and of course, everything is made fresh here every day.”
Once the summer season has passed, Nicola is looking ahead to the opportunities that long evenings can offer.
“There was a point, when we transitioned from vegetarianism to veganism, when I did wonder how I was going to do it, so I know exactly what people feel. That’s why we’re going to be offering cookery courses: not based on recipes, but really based on your intuition.
“So you wake up in the morning and think, OK what do I feel like eating? There are things you can put together from the fridge without thinking about having a recipe and still having the full elements of a healthy meal.
“I’ll take people shopping as part of the cookery course! I want people to understand where you can find certain ingredients and how to use them. We will cook together and eat together; set the table with flowers — a bit of ceremony. All these little things that I hope people will take away with them and do for their own family.”
If truth be told, I’m a little bit jealous. As an avid lover of both books and food, Antiquity Café and Bookshop is the stuff of dreams to me! I also adore Nicola’s reverence for the power of eating around the table. If it wasn’t for that one simple act, the bookshop would have been wrapped up and all those new conversations and connections between strangers around the tables inside the café would never have happened. Maybe the new wifi password should be “haveachat” — you wouldn’t know what could happen if you did.
Follow them on Instagram: @antiquitybookshopcafe
Next week in the series we chat to Rebecca Scott of Rebecca’s Kitchen Café in Kilbrittain