Owner of legendary UWS cookbook store transitions to out-of-print.
30 years ago, when he opened his now-legendary food and drink bookstore Kitchen Arts & Letters on a quiet stretch of Lexington Avenue, former publisher Nach Waxman quickly discovered that being a bookstore owner wasn’t exactly how he had imagined it.
“You don’t just sit around with the store cat or dog all day, having intelligent chitchat with your customers, while everything else takes care of itself,” Waxman, now 77, recalled recently. “Having a store means packing and unpacking, vacuuming the floor, paying the bills.”
And then there’s the energy-consuming state of being “on” all day long — of being perfectly polite, always ready with an answer, every single time a customer comes in off the street.
“You have to train yourself to smile that much,” he said.
Speaking with Waxman, a youthful, avuncular and articulate man whose passion for books — even after all these years — can barely be contained, it’s hard to believe he’s ever had to force a smile. Whatever his formula, it has worked: three decades later, Kitchen Arts & Letters is a powerhouse of a bookstore, stocking a finely-curated mix of cookbooks, food and drink history books, culinary magazines and even technical manuals that has become a destination of choice for chefs and industry folks in New York City and all over the world, as well as for the ever-growing segment of the general foodie public.
But things are about to change for Waxman: recently, he quietly announced that he’ll be transitioning from working for the store nearly full-time to focusing on selling the out-of-print books that have long been a kind of “off the menu” specialty at the store.
“I started this store 30 years ago,” Waxman explained. “So it was a little bit of ‘been there, done that.’”
Waxman said he decided about five or six years ago to “ease out” of the store and focus more fully on out-of-print. For many years, customers had been coming in asking for out-of-print titles, about 3,000 of which Waxman keeps in the bookstore’s basement. Waxman always got a lot of pleasure out of matching these rare books with their rightful owners, he said, but the day-to-day operations of the bookstore kept him too busy to really focus on the process.
“It was always sort of done with one hand,” he said.
But soon, the work will begin in earnest. Waxman has already transferred majority ownership of the Kitchen Arts to Matt Sartwell, the store’s longtime manager, and he’s begun paying closer attention to customer requests and how they correlate to what he can actually get his hands on. In January alone, when he focused exclusively on out-of-print, his transactions in that area doubled.
Although Waxman currently works at the store only three days a week, much of his time outside it is spent tracking down rare and out-of-print books. He and his wife like to travel; a few times a year, they’ll pick out a destination they’ve not yet been to and take a short trip. Often, Waxman said, he finds himself inside bookstores, inside libraries, at estate sales, without having planned it. Recently, the couple was exploring Rochester, N.Y. when Waxman happened on a garage sale; the next thing he knew, he had pored through boxes and boxes of books for close to three hours.
And books tend to turn up in all other sorts of ways, too, Waxman said: in the incinerator room in his building. In bags, in the trash. On the doorstep of Kitchen Arts, where strangers often leave tomes like little orphans.
“I find them anywhere and everywhere,” he said.
Waxman doesn’t yet have a name for his new venture: He said he’s hoping it will hit him in the middle of the night, like it did 30 years ago when he thought of Kitchen Arts & Letters. But, he said, one thing’s for sure: his out-of-print stocks will remain in the store basement.
“If I brought them home, the books and I would be cast out on the street,” he said.
Kitchen Arts & Letters
1435 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128