Part 2 - Interview with Nach Waxman, Owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters

Last week we shared the history of Kitchen Arts and Letters, and the experience of the store's founder and owner, Nach Waxman.  This week we hear about the customers at Kitchen Arts and Letters. Along with the variety and depth of books carried, the customers are the soul of the bookstore according to Waxman. Check out part 2 of his interview, plus advice for anyone who wants to write a cookbook!

What do you want customers to experience when they come to the bookstore?

I really regard the experience in this bookstore as what it should be for customers who want to discover it. They're not coming and saying "Do you have X, I couldn't find it as Barnes and Noble." That's not as much fun for us. We want them to say "Oh my god, I never knew that there's an entire book on 'name a subject.'"

So the books you carry aren't your usual bookstore fare.

No, we carry self-published works, and we have an active out of print operation. We find books for people without charge, we will do searches without obligation and we also let them know about things that may be very useful and interesting to know about that they may have never heard about because the book has been unavailable for 30 or 40 years.

Can you talk a little bit about your customers?

Well, we really, really want people to come to the store. We do the things that a store has to do to stay in business, in terms of internet and mail order, but that really has never been my impulse, or the impulse of the store, we want people to come. And happily they do. Not only from New York City and from the vicinity but from all over the country and very much all over the world.

There's not a day that goes by without people in from Brazil or Venezuela or France, or you name the country, on a regular basis.

A substantial portion of the customers is people who do work connected with food. The very concept of the store when I first was thinking it though has always been that the core that was going to keep it going was people who are active in one way or another in feeding other people. Everybody from the farmers in the processes to the restaurateurs to the people, our wine section, people in the wine trade, wine sales people, they come in on a regular basis.

Somebody coming in to buy a father's day present or a birthday book from Martha may drop 25 or 35 or 40 dollars, it's not uncommon to have a chef or a caterer or something drop five- or six-hundred dollars or more in a shot.

First thing, plain and simple, those customers are our economic flywheel.  Yes, when the restaurant business has a cold, we sneeze.  It goes without saying that it's definitely part of it.

The second impact of this type of customer, this core customer, is it really enables us to run a store at a much higher level than what we would have to do if we were just trying to go for broad, popular, more popular audience.

The third impact of having this sort of high level customer is the level of discourse here is high.  The conversation is really interesting, it's extremely common to have two people talking about a subject, a culinary subject, or a gastronomic subject, and other people join in, and many of them are people who know a great deal more.  We know a whole lot, but our customers know a hell of a lot more than we do.  And we've learned from them over the years.

What makes a cookbook publishable?

It's really hard to know, it's a lot about instinct and personal judgment, it's hard to say what a given publisher would feel about a book. But if your cookbook is going to make it, it's got to have a handle.

A handle is a simple statement that explains what the book is and through that statement gives a hint as to whom the book is for. Who is going to read the book and how are they going to use it. I've often heard a handle described as what you say to someone at a cocktail party when you're introduced and you only have 8 to 13 seconds before their eyes float across the room.

To define your handle, think about what it is about your body of material that can make somebody feel, "Oh, I really need to see this." Think about what goes into your decision to choose a book and take it home with you. After you know what you want, think about whether there are twenty thousand other people who want to pay to take that baby home with them.

For more wisdom and great books, visit Kitchen Arts and Letters. The store is located at 1345 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY.

Interview with Nach Waxman, Owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters

Part 1

Kitchen Arts and Letters is one of the great treasures of New York. Owner Nach Waxman started the store after a career in academia and publishing, but he has found a great fit in this bookstore, which has everything from a recent blockbuster cookbook to a book on the role of gastronomy in the plays of Moliere.

Waxman is more than just a bookstore owner, he is a curator, and the choice of books in the store reflects the best of what's out there. Dealing in both new books and used and out of print, Waxman and his employees will track down a book that he thinks is a good fit for his customers. And those customers aren't just any old drop ins, the patrons of Kitchen Arts and Letters come from downtown and up, from outside of New York and as far away as New Zealand.

MarcusSamuelsson.com caught up with Mr. Waxman recently to pick his brain, which is almost as full of knowledge as his store is of books, and to hear about his experience. This first interview is the first in the series. First, Waxman gives an introduction to the store. Check back next week for more about the customers, the books, and what makes a cookbook worth publishing.

What is Kitchen Arts and Letters?

The store opened in '83, and I brought to it a background of publishing and books. Food was something I knew about and cared about, but food wasn't point central on this. It was determined early that I wanted to do food, but the point was and I've stuck to that to this day to have nobody come in and mistake it for anything but a bookstore. We don't sell tchotchkes. We carried one food product in the entire time we've been here. It was an olive oil from France that we happened to like.

What kinds of books do you carry?

We're not a cookbook store, we're a bookstore that specializes in food and wine. Maybe as little as half the books are actually cookbooks, the other half are books about everything related to the entire world of food from how we get it to how we think about it.

We have books on agriculture, food processing and manufacturing, books on the restaurant industry. There's everything from restaurant purchasing to how to design a bar.

We don't kid around, it's meant to be for people who are thinking about food in it's broadest social and cultural existence.

What does that mean?

It's not just what goes on in the kitchen, it's what goes on in every aspect of our lives from the ways we produce and buy the food to the things we pay attention to when we make it and when we serve it

A lot of anthropology here, we're as interested in what kind of Bessel food traditional made or served in as the recipe and as interested in the history of that recipe as we are in the details of making it

The thing that I always think about when I think about the store is the breadth of it. That we really try to give a subject in its full scope. And to do that we carry not only the books that are readily available and not only the books that are just hard to get, but we really pride ourselves on carrying the books you've never heard of. 35 to 40 percent of our sales are books that are imported both in English and foreign languages.

-- Check back next week for Part 2!

Kitchen Arts and Letters is located at 1345 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY.