Behind the Cover

Tucked on a quiet street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is a bookstore that you might miss if you didn’t know it was there. At more than thirty years old, Kitchen Arts & Letters has been a mainstay in the culinary book world, selling both popular and hard to find titles. It’s a small shop, with books covering practically every possible inch of space. Through a love of food and an obsession with books of all kinds, the shop has remained open through food trends and rise-and-downward-spiral of ebooks.

On a sunny weekday morning, we stopped into the store to chat with Managing Partner, Matt Sartwell about the store, how consumer tastes have changed, and the power of books.


Brianna Plaza: Thanks for meeting with me! Can you tell me a little about your background?

Matt Sartwell: I used to be an editor at a division of Penguin. I realized most of my job had become sitting in meetings and arguing over marketing budgets, rather than being involved with getting books into the hands of people that enjoyed them. So I left that job and was working as a freelancer, but i needed a little part time work. A friend of mine knew Nach Waxman’s [founder/owner] wife, and he needed some part time help, so I started here.

Eventually, I began working more days and this became what I did full time. About four years ago I became a majority owner of this business. Nach is still very much involved; he handles our old books, out of print books, and is very interested in academics.

When you’ve had a book for a while and you’ve used it, it starts to acquire a character that’s particularly yours: the stains, the creased pages. With books you want the reflection and the time spent. And with a cookbook, the sections you come back to, they eventually become easier to find.
— Matt Sartwell

Brianna Plaza: So, the store’s been around for 30 years..

Matt Sartwell:  The store will have been around 34 years this Sept. Nach started it while he was working as a book editor. He was interested in working for himself and wanted to open a speciality bookstore. He had two ideas: what we’ve got, or it was going to be sports-related. He decided that in opening a food related-store, he would have a bigger base of customers. I think that has proven to be true because over the years people who are in the food industry, those people have been a real back bone of our store.

Brianna Plaza: Are most of your customers from the industry?

Matt Sartwell: I would say that purchase-wise, around 60% of our revenue comes from people in the industry. In terms of actual people, it’s much less than that. The average professional customer can spend a lot more money in one trip. We do see a lot of home cooks; people that buy one at a time. We wouldn’t be here without both of those groups. We do skew our book buying towards the professional customer.

Brianna Plaza: How has your customer changed from when you opened to now, considering the rise and almost fall of an electronic book

Matt Sartwell: Customers in general have become a lot more adventurous. When I first started working here, if it had the word French or Italian on it, that’s what people were buying. It was almost to the point of ridiculous. Now we can sell a lot of books on Persian or Filipino food. Everyone is generally more adventurous, which isn’t to say there aren’t still some blind spots left to address. We want to challenge publishers, and we want people to come here and ask for specific books.

Brianna Plaza: Do you seek out unusual or rare books, or do you wait for customers to come in and ask for them?

Matt Sartwell: People let us know about books they want. But sometimes we establish relationships with publishers to carry uncommon books. Our customers are great resources.

Brianna Plaza: How does someone go searching for rare or out-of-print books?

Matt Sartwell: There are a number of things. First of all, he [Nach Waxman] has a very significant collection downstairs of, I’d say, four thousand books, but that fluctuates back-and-forth. He’s often offered collections that he goes through and finds things. There’s a collection of books that just came in from a seller in California. Nach and his wife like to go to small towns and visit community centers and libraries. He’s also connected with other dealers. He just bought some off Paula Wolfert [ed note: Paula Wolfert is an award-winning cookbook author, largely credited with introducing the American palate to many Mediterranean dishes.] who’s been selling off some of her collection. Plus, in the regular course of things is find those things that have an an unusual publish history (published, published abroad).

Brianna Plaza: Do you find that there are certain clients that come in here only looking for that rare or out-of-print book?

Matt Sartwell: Sure. I mean there are people who regularly want to be surprised and delighted. We use a freight consolidator in England so most of our European stuff comes in that way. But we’re bringing in things directly from Singapore, Australia, Ecuador.

Brianna Plaza: Do rare cookbooks have the same value as other rare manuscripts?

Matt Sartwell: Generally speaking, no. It’s a horrible financial investment. There are people for whom having the books in their collection offers a profound satisfaction that two shares of Google just don’t. The way that you interact with books over the time that they’re yours, it’s impossible to place a value on it. That’s what real collections are worth and how they become interesting. Because they reflect something about the owner. A serious collection or even a modest collection; that collection is probably not going to buy a house in The Hamptons when you retire but it’s going to bring you joy. Owning a book is an entry into a world that’s different than your own, you’re engaging in something creative.

When you’ve had a book for a while and you’ve used it, it starts to acquire a character that’s particularly yours: the stains, the creased pages. We have a lot of interest in people getting excited over physical books. It’s a different interaction [than kindle]. With books you want the reflection and the time spent. And with a cookbook, the sections you come back to, they eventually become easier to find.

Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.