Cookbook store profile: Featuring Kitchen Arts & Letters

Kitchen Arts & LettersRecently we began to offer an EYB feature highlighting independent cookbook stores. Now you can discover (or get reacquainted with) a store near your home - or plan a new target destination when you travel.

And to make this as strong a feature as we can, we're asking our members to help us. We already know of many great stores, which we keep an ongoing list of  (you can view them here), but we'd love to learn about more - especially those treasured by our members. So please share the names of independent cookbook stores that you know, love, admire, or are just plain crazy about. Add a comment to this posting, or email us at info@eatyourbooks.com with the name, address, and owner (if you know it). We'll do the rest.

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This month we are featuring Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City. Our Q&A began with the unfortunate news that two great cookbook stores were recently shuttered, and we asked owners Matt Sartwell and Nach Waxman how Kitchen Arts & Letters coped with the challenging environment for bricks and mortar stores in the age of internet shopping.

EYB: Two cookbook stores have closed down in the last month - The Cookbook Store in Toronto and Salt and Pepper Books in Maryland.  How does Kitchen Arts & Letters stay competitive in the current trading environment, where online stores offer low prices and free home delivery?

It's not easy, that's for sure. There's no way we'll ever have the deep pockets of giant multinational corporations.  But things happen here all the time that don't happen at Amazon.com.  Just last week we had visits from David Tanis, Darina Allen, and Ferran Adrià , which means that not only do we have signed copies of their books but that our customers had the chance to meet these authors in the store.  And while it's true that we simply cannot be price competitive on the newest Rachael Ray book, partly because Amazon and B&N get better deals than we do, I had an experience this weekend that I think is worth repeating here.  A young pastry cook came in and spent hours looking at books in our professional section.  He brought a stack of ten or so to the counter and asked me to beat Amazon's prices.  So I took a minute to do a comparison and then showed him that for the types of books he was interested in--rare, imported, or highly specialized--our prices were significantly better on seven of the books. I then spent another half an hour with him suggested he replace a couple of his pricier choices with less expensive titles that were likely to be more useful in the long term.

My hope is that customers who decide to buy as much of their food as possible from local sources will also think about the importance of having a local supplier, with stock appropriate to the community it serves. A place employing staff that knows more about a book than what appears in the copy written by the publisher's unpaid intern, and which can offer someone who walks in the door a chance to explore books in the intimate way that comes from having them in your hand.

EYB: Why do the customers in your store prefer to come to Kitchen Arts & Letters rather than stores such as Barnes & Noble or online shopping?

I think I've said a lot about that above. Although I should make it clear that we don't serve just one type of customer that way. We're always talking to everyday home cooks about the books we've used, the ones we love, the ones we think have great ideas but wonky recipes, the wonderful things to read before a visit to Paris or a barbecue road trip through Texas.  And if you buy something from us, spend an hour with it at home and decide you don't like it, we're not only going to take it back, we're going to listen to why you didn't like it and work with you to find something that makes you happier.

EYB: Do you specialize in any particular areas of cookbooks?

We have the widest selection of imported books that I have encountered in any culinary specialist in North America or Europe, and I say that knowing that I'm talking about some excellent stores.  I don't think anyone can match our breadth when it comes to the great restaurants, but we also have a great assortment of home books from around the world: an Ecuadorian book we bring in from Quito, an array of Indian regional books published on the sub-continent, books in Spanish on the individual Mexican states.  Food history is very strong for us, an always growing section, as is the selection of writing about food--essayists such as Calvin Trillin or Eleanor Clark's magical The Oysters of Locmariaquer.

EYB: What are the big sellers at Kitchen Arts & Letters?

The professional chef books are almost always at the top of any list we put together because we're ferreting out books that restaurant people want and simply cannot find and see anywhere else. Ronnie Emborg's The Wizard's Cookbook from Denmark is the leader so far in 2014.  But we're still selling Ottolenghi's Plenty as if it were brand new: it was huge for us the moment it came in the door. Our bestselling book of all time is Harold McGee's On Food & Cooking.  It's so profoundly useful, even though it doesn't have a single recipe in it.

EYB: Do you import many books from overseas? 

Thousands.  From the UK, France, Spain, German, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, Australia, India, Singapore, Japan, Peru, Brazil, Ecaudor, Venezuela: those are the countries I can think of off the top of my head.

EYB: What type of books do you like to cook from yourself?  Do you have a favorite cookbook of all time? 

Matt says: I tend to get the most satisfaction from books which offer me templates as much as recipes. I want ideas I can personalize and riff on.  Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen has a "restorative broth" which contains a cloud of aromatics and herbs as well as mushrooms and tofu.  I almost never remember the mushrooms and tofu, but the rest of it! I use that broth over and over again to enliven all kinds of things, from some anemic grilled chicken breasts to odds and ends of bacon and leftover mashed potatoes.  Honestly, if a book gives me one great template like that, I will treasure it forever, regardless of what else I take from it. As for a favorite of all time, I'll just say this: long before I came to work at Kitchen Arts, I cooked a brunch to celebrate the engagement of a colleague at the publisher where I worked.  Nach and his wife were among the guests because they were friends of the future groom. I prepared almost all the food from Vianna LaPlace and Evan Kleiman's Cucina Fresca, a book I'd fallen for as soon as it was published.  And the Waxmans recognized the source because they were enchanted too.  If anyone comes to us looking for something to fall in love with, that's the book we're going to recommend because it is so smart, so versatile, so sane, and so good.   

Nach adds: My cooking for pleasure is Indian. I do it so much at that this point books serve me mainly as a springboard--an idea, a new ingredient, a hint on a better way of peeling a mango or of making a silkier sauce. However, the book I still refer to, which always seems fresh to me, is Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking.  Her buttered smothered cabbage is a regular at home, much loved for its simplicity.

EYB: New York is of course well populated with restaurants.  Where are your favorite places to eat in the city?

It's impossible to list all the places we love.  Also, everyone here is more likely to be cooking at home than eating out, but among the places we recommend often:

Alder
Blue Hill
Buttermilk Channel
Gramercy Tavern
Sfoglia (our neighborhood place)

6 Comments

  • ahelck  on  3/23/2014 at 6:03 AM

    I am so going there when I'm in NYC later this Spring!

  • Bloominanglophile  on  3/23/2014 at 3:51 PM

    I have never had the good fortune to visit NYC and Kitchen Arts and Letters, but I have called and ordered two books from them. The first was Marion Brown's Southern Cookbook, and years later it was Pierre Herme's Macaron (the French Edition--just about a year before the English translation came out in the UK!). We had a nice chat over the phone--Mr. Waxman was so friendly and so knowledgeable. It is always a pleasure to support a business like that. If you are looking for an obscure cookbook, this is your bookstore!

  • GreenWillow  on  3/24/2014 at 5:56 PM

    Thank you for this article on Kitchen Arts and Letters! Whenever I am in NYC, I make a beeline to this store. Their staff - especially Nach and Matt - are infinitely knowledgeable and the depth of their stock is legendary. Kitchen Arts and Letters is a national treasure for cookbook lovers and chefs alike.

  • tui  on  3/25/2014 at 1:54 AM

    When I read Matt's comment on Cucina Fresca by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman I swivelled round in my chair to check on my bookshelves that this was the book that I too have loved and used since it was published. I live in New Zealand but bought this book in San Francisco, I think. The wild and white rice salad has been a family favourite for more than 20 years.

  • ccav  on  3/25/2014 at 11:12 AM

    This is a wonderful place and I too love going there when in NYC, along with Bonnie Slotnick's cookbook store!

  • MelKettle  on  3/29/2014 at 8:08 PM

    I spent a very happy hour in this wonderful little store when I was in NYC in August, and came out with three purchases. I was totally overwhelmed with choice as the shelves were laden with so many goodies. We have a lovely little cookbook store in Brisbane, Scrumptious Reads. While the range is far smaller than that of Kitchen Arts & Letters, the love, enthusiasm and dedication of the owners have for their store is huge. They too have many special events with guest chefs and authors, and just for people who love food. Be sure to pop in if you are in Brisbane http://www.scrumptiousreads.com/

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