A man walks into a bookstore looking for a rare cookbook. When he gives his email to the bookseller behind the desk to be notified when another edition is in stock, another man turns from browsing the shelves stocked with cookbooks to exclaim that he used to take care of the shopper years ago at Eleven Madison Park.
Reunions aren’t uncommon at Kitchen Arts & Letters, a cookbook-focused Upper East Side fixture dating back to 1983.
“Funky, fun things happen when you have a specialized bookstore,” managing partner Matt Sartwell says. “There’s a serendipity of who you meet here.”
Sartwell left his job as an editor at Penguin to become a bookseller at Kitchen Arts in 1991, eventually rising to part owner about five years ago. Founder Nach Waxman is still involved, primarily in searching for older books, “doing detective work all over the place,” Sartwell says.
Sometimes Waxman will encounter books that are in high demand, or he’ll find an unexpected treasure. Limited Manhattan square footage means he needs to be scrupulous with what he stocks, and titles range from bestselling cookbooks of decades past to translated cookbooks from all corners of the world.
“We have a list of particular books people want,” Sartwell says.
They might be family staples that are no longer in print. Other times pure nostalgia leads customers on a hunt.
“Some popular books are of real New York importance,” Sartwell says. “The original ‘New York Times Cookbook’ by Craig Claiborne, who was the original Times food editor for many years — he revised the book late in his career, but people want the original.”
The same is true for Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”
“She would say the revised book is better, but people have a sentimental attachment to the original,” Sartwell says.
Home cooks, from neighbors to out-of-towners, make up the bulk of the store’s clientele.
“People come in and want an adventure they think they won’t find at a more general bookstore,” Sartwell says. “We have depth. You won’t find as many books on a single topic at Barnes & Noble like we have on cookies, cocktails or whole-grain bread baking.”
But the store also gets its fair share of professionals, ranging from line cooks to executive chefs, restaurateurs to food entrepreneurs.
“We get a lot of people who work for Daniel Boulud,” Sartwell says. “It’s clear that he encourages and responds well to people who like books. Chefs like him encourage a bookish kind of cook.”
Even in the age of Pinterest and free online recipes, the value of cookbooks is apparent to Sartwell.
“What helps books succeed is that they give a viewpoint, they have a perspective,” says Sartwell, nodding to recent popular titles like “Feast: Food of the Islamic World.” “A book like that helps people make sense of the world a little differently, and if it could inspire them to visit a new place or help people fear difference a little less, then we’re doing our job.”
- The shop’s bestselling book is not a cookbook, but rather a book about how food works scientifically: “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. “It’s a really useful book for people who work with food all the time,” Sartwell says.
- Every spring, the store has a clean-out sale with half of book sale proceeds benefiting the Edible Schoolyard Project.
- Customers often bring in recipes they’ve made from the store’s cookbooks as gifts and snacks; the strangest food item a customer ever brought Sartwell was a plucked, head-on duck, which he chilled outside and roasted that weekend.
- Kitchen Arts & Letters is located at 1435 Lexington Ave. For more info, visit kitchenartsandletters.com.