A Day in the Life of Kitchen Arts & Letters

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At about 2 minutes to opening time on a toasty Monday, a cheffy-looking Asian guy is tugging on the locked door of Kitchen Arts & Letters on the Upper East Side, even though all the lights are off and the only sign of life is a manager wedged into the display window, contorting to perfect a display of books on fish. And these are not books on how to cook fish but good reads by writers like John McPhee, Mark Kurlansky and Richard Ellis; shoppers looking for recipes are meant to be tempted by the next window, the one already arrayed with a couple of dozen Indian cookbooks, not one of which sports the name of a familiar author. Some are from Britain—fusion and high-end restaurant fare—but most are from Kerala and Gujarati and even Bollywood.

Five hours and two minutes later, that manager will be pulling the grates down over both those seductive windows, locking the door again and heading home like his boss and one young clerk. By then the three of them will have sold 39 titles, over the counter and by e-mail and phone to Singapore and beyond, and almost none of these titles can be found on a center table at Barnes & Noble. They will have advised half a dozen or so chefs, one young mom, a well-heeled couple and a slow stream of other shoppers looking for the right book on Chinese ingredients or the forthcoming Alinea cookbook; they will have answered at least a dozen telephone inquiries, turned away a solicitor selling candied almonds, and heard more restaurant news than Eater.com dispenses in a day. A longtime patron from Long Island even came book-buying with the girlfriend to whom he has just presented a huge engagement ring after nine years together.

I have been making pilgrimages to Kitchen Arts & Letters almost since it opened, 25 years ago this fall, but I never understood how much more than a cooks’ bookstore it has become until I spent a full day there. If you need anything that was ever written about food, the womb-like store either has it or can find it: treatises on English biscuit tins or 18th-century French cutlery or the role of rice in art; quirky books on “extraordinary chickens” or 365 fish drawings; literature such as A.J. Liebling’s classic Between Meals, thick scholarly works on growing avocados or the chemistry of black pepper; glossy compilations by Ferran Adria and other superstars of “molecular gastronomy;” advice on kosher catering or cooking for children or on a boat; and of course any ethnic food—the packed shelves in one corner of the store start with African and end with Vietnamese. You will even find a short list on cannibalism—it is a cuisine, after all.

But what Kitchen Arts & Letters really is is the embodiment of its name. Food is essential for the body. Literature feeds the brain. And here the twain meet.

When Nach Waxman gave up his career in publishing to start the store in 1983, food was a whole different game in Manhattan (and, really, the world). He says he was mortified in the beginning when so many of his customers were obsessed with competitive entertaining (this was, after all, the print beginning of Martha Stewart and the Silver Palate) and would grill him on what cookbooks other home cooks had bought. Today he realizes he was lucky to have been forced by economics into a location that was then merely affordable; today his shop is a destination. Rather than having to worry about relying on foot traffic from the neighborhood, he knows serious cooks will seek him out. More than one kitchen grunt hired to turn vegetables has graduated to garde manger (or better) after his boss sent him uptown to invest in a book to learn more. (Ironically, Waxman says his biggest challenge is finding qualified part-time workers himself, even though one hired 16 years ago went on to become his trusted manager.)

The store is dangerous to the cookbook collector’s budget—if Waxman and that manager, Matt Sartwell, do not carry it, odds are it is not fit to buy (although they do stock a few of Rachael Ray’s concoctions). Beyond the nearly-to-the-ceiling shelves and shelves of books at street level (1,000 titles in French alone), they also maintain a basement crammed with 2,000 to 3,000 out-of-print volumes alone, not to mention back issues of every one of the non-mainstream food magazines they have ever stocked. Waxman says he tries to keep a copy of every title he’s carried, partly so he will always have one for chefs and lesser cooks to peruse. No wonder he says that of 60 to 70 new titles published each season, he invests in only 20 to 25. But he will spend what it takes to bring in the gorgeous new Spanish magazine Apicius, only now translated into English, to sell for $45 a copy.

Waxman clearly prefers the more esoteric side of his business; while he and Sartwell divide the ordering these days, he is more interested in out-of-print than up-and-coming. He also plays a behind-the-curtain wizard’s role in cookbook publishing—by the time the door was unlocked on this Monday, he had already spent two and a half hours advising a sales rep from a huge publisher; his goal is to make food books more challenging, less dumbed down. He says his great frustration is with American companies that are unwilling to take risks when 40 percent of his business is in imported books with a very narrow, sophisticated focus that buyers cannot find elsewhere. The store sells them despite the hefty prices resulting from both the shipping charges and the currency exchange, now that dollars have become pesos. A forthcoming Heston Blumenthal, for instance, may go for $250.

Waxman says only 40 percent of his patrons are in the food business, but they account for 75 percent of his sales. On this day about a fifth of the shoppers are chefs, many of whom come not only to browse through the books on offer but to get a sneak peek at promotional materials for those scheduled to be published (try that at Borders). One who is starting a restaurant comes in looking for books on kitchen design and leaves hours later with three on Southern cooking as well; another who is a downtown star comes in looking for anything that might be newly challenging and leaves confessing he has quit his kitchen in a dispute with the owner.

A Webcam in the shop would be a huge hit just for those insider tidbits. But the shop’s broad appeal comes in other vignettes. A young mom who seeks a dairy-free cookbook is steered to the vegan section while one child babble-sings in the stroller and another sits quietly on a chair, leafing slowly through Au Pied de Cochon as if it were In the Night Kitchen—the graphically illustrated cookbook from Montreal is one of the shop’s best sellers at $150. A middle-aged couple clearly from the neighborhood find two books on Spanish wine and buy two more on cocktails as gifts. Two women in “just to get away from the kids,” spend half an hour browsing and finally succumb to a copy of Cook’s Illustrated. An Iranian-Jewish cab driver, who is a passionate cook, is greeted heartily on his weekly visit and struts out with two books on herbs from the bargain bin for all of $4. And an Indian woman who happens to be strolling by winds up leaving happily with the gaudy Bollywood cookbook. Waxman said he had ordered three copies primarily as a novelty. Now he may have to go back for more.

Cookbookish. Half of the books Nach Waxman sells are imported with a narrow, sophisticated focus buyers can’t find elsewhere. Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell.