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Inside Kitchen Arts & Letters, the Legendary NYC Cookbook Store

New York City cookbook store Kitchen Arts & Letters is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Writer Regina Schrambling talked to owner Nach Waxman, who gave her a tour of his vast private basement collection, containing among its thousands of volumes some of the rarest cookbooks in the world.

Five years ago I spent five hours taking notes at Kitchen Arts & Letters for a "day in the life" feature on America's best food-book emporium on its 25th anniversary. Little did I know I was sitting on the most impressive part of the story. I never asked to see the basement.

The bookstore's basement is filled with thousands of volumes: out-of-print books, rare (and signed) first editions, back issues of food magazines. As owner Nach Waxman puts it, the basement comprises "things we will sell and things we will not sell." I was lucky enough to get a tour.

Shoppers are not allowed down the scary-steep stairs to that basement, but they certainly have plenty to occupy themselves with at street level. While the Far Upper East Side store is often described (by me, who will never do it again) as Cookbook Mecca, its floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with much more: books on sustainability and on famine, on wine and cocktails, on food history and food science and restaurant economics, and on every other angle on the most important element of life after oxygen.

As Waxman says: "Physically I think the real statement about the store, its major characteristic, is the way it takes on its subject: full frontal thoroughness, depth and breadth." That means 13,000 titles, carefully culled. "I'd be surprised if we order 50 percent of what's published," he says. "We know what our customers want."

And it's not another collection of pizza or pasta recipes.

Chefs account for about 70 percent of Waxman's business.

Partly that's because chefs account for about 70 percent of Waxman's business, and he is on first-name basis with the likes of "René from Copenhagen" (René Redzepi of Noma). Waxman says, "They come in either to sign or to do business — Daniel [Boulud] has young people from his kitchen coming in all the time. Wylie [Dufresne] is a big customer of us from forever. Dan Barber. These people are all supporters of this store."

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And chefs don't buy for a pinch of this, a cup of that. They want pictures, or the food didn't happen. "They buy books the way you would go to a show at the ICP, or an artist would go to see something at the Met, or someone would go to Carnegie Hall to hear a musician — not to copy anything but to take inspiration." Waxman estimates two-thirds of those who bought Frédéric Anton's cookbook from Le Pré Catelan in Paris — "and we sold a lot" — don't even read French. They want "major quality photography" of "amazingly styled food" so they can study the composition of intricate dishes.

While you would think they could get their fix online, Waxman says digital coverage is "fragmentary; books are coherent." Anton's book gives a vivid sense of his distinctive style (read: heavy on polka dots in every dish).

Food went global as American publishers were dumbing down.

Before Kitchen Arts, books like those were beyond the reach of chefs unless they traveled globally and were willing to schlep heavy stuff home. But Waxman, who notes that he came from the world of books, not just from what's filed under 641 in the Dewey Decimal System, saw food going global as American publishers were dumbing down. Over at least the last 20 years he developed an international network, fronting the cash to bring in worthy books. Sometimes that means investing in multiple copies of a Swedish chef's book that will only gather dust in his front shelves ("if it were an American book, we could return it"). Sometimes it results in a best-seller, as Alex Atala's D.O.M was in December, outpacing even Manresa.

And who else can say this? René from Copenhagen's first book, simply titled Noma, was released in Denmark: 3,000 copies in Danish, 1,200 (or so) copies in English. "We carried it, sold it. One day we couldn't get it anymore. We learned he hated the book. He didn't like the photos, didn't like the printing, didn't like anything, and he withdrew it."

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Waxman expects to sell "a ton" of the new Redzepi, partly because the store laid in a stockpile of signed copies, partly because "it's the perfect book for New Yorkers but is not necessarily something a Barnes & Noble will have."

As he adds: "Amazon may catch on to it, but they're slow, and they're surely not going to sell books that are $120 or $149 that we know we can sell. . . We have Michel Bras' Essentials, which was done in France. It's 120 bucks and we have sold over 600 copies. Payard Desserts, when all is said in done, maybe 60 copies? First of all, it is widely available elsewhere. And then it's 40 bucks, or less than that. To order the Bras from France, you have to put up the dough. Very, very few people have it."

"There are books that we simply don't admit to having because we're waiting for the right customer." —Waxman

But Waxman's real advantage lies with out-of-print books, and those are among the treasures downstairs, in two rooms and a doorless walk-in refrigerator left from the days when the space was a butcher shop. "We could spend a week down here just looking at stuff," he says. "Twenty-five percent of the books have a story, a very, very long story."

Among the 3,000 to 4,000 out-of-print titles he is holding are many first editions of M.F.K. Fisher (and Alice B. Toklas), but he also has the likes of Liberace Cooks and a cookbook by Muhammad Ali's chef. He has a signed first edition of Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti, which is extremely rare. "What happened is when she left Jeremiah Tower, the book was in effect withdrawn because it was 'Desserts of Stars' the way Claudia Fleming's book was Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. And that sells for $400 a copy."

But he notes: "There are books that we simply don't admit to having because we're waiting for the right customer." Increasingly, that means university libraries.

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Waxman also has shelves of Laffont editions, the entire series of cookbooks done in the 1970s and 80s by great French chefs. "Practically anybody who ever became important did their first book there: Girardet, Robuchon. This series is very rare. We keep a complete set not to sell. It's our reference set.

"And that's a key part of what we do. Any significant book we keep a last copy, and people are always able to, if they need a recipe, they can use it. Really out-of-print books are the only ones we allow people to copy from."

"Any significant book we keep a last copy, and people are always able to use it." —Waxman

Waxman also keeps back issues of Art Culinaire, Saveur, and Food Arts downstairs and notes that magazines are becoming much more important. "Modern Farmer, that's big stuff. Lucky Peach Nos. 1 and 2, we have had offers of multiple hundreds of dollars for those. With Cherry Bombe, we have had people calling us for two months, wondering when's the next issue." (Does he read them? "I look at them. There isn't enough time in a year to read all of this. I read issues of Put an Egg on It, look at the contents of Diner Journal.")

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Beyond the physical contents of Kitchen Arts, though, what the store really offers is deep knowledge. Waxman and the store's longtime manager, Matt Sartwell, don't answer questions by clicking on a computer. They walk directly to the shelves.

And that brings us to their worst customers.

"I'd say that the hardest customers are customers who don't have a very keen sense of what they want." Waxman says. "In general, people come in here motivated in some way; [because of the out-of-the-way location] you're not wandering in out of the theater, or off a train at Grand Central. I get a lot of people come in and say, 'What's good?' Or, 'What's your best Italian cookbook?' At least a question like that you can deal with because then you can begin to ask them a bunch of questions: 'Do you own any Italian cookbooks already? Do you cook Italian or are you Italian? Why do you want do this, do you want to make a certain Italian dish or do you want to get seriously into it? Are you interested in a particular region?' Or you get 'I gotta get a wedding present or a shower present. And she's a really good cook.' 'What does she like to cook?' 'Oh, everything.'

"We obviously have developed strategies for trying to get them to extrude. With the professionals, the process is simpler because they come in for specific stuff. But most commonly they'll say, 'What's new?' If we know them, it's easy. Then otherwise, with 'Where do you cook?' we get some clues."

"'I can get it online cheaper' is so common you can't even get mad anymore." —Waxman

"The biggest problem is not with the customers. It's with the general state of mind. We had somebody in the store recently and they spent half an hour sort of browsing through something on the shelves and finally settled on a book and one of them said to the other: 'Oh, I can get it online cheaper.' It's so common that you can't even get mad at it anymore."

"Sometimes a book that is perfect for us, like the original Modernist Cuisine, the retail price was $695. We immediately knocked it down to $595. Amazon was selling it for $467. We could have sold that book forever. But we can't compete. Amazon wants that customer base, to sell toasters and everything else. Books are loss leaders."

Kitchen Arts takes orders by phone (212 876 5550) or email and will eventually do so online when its website is revamped this Winter, but the best way to experience it is in person. Even if you can't go downstairs.

—Regina Schrambling


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[Photos: Daniel Krieger]

Kitchen Arts & Letters

1435 Lexington Avenue New York, NY 10128
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