Matthew Sartwell is the Managing Partner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, the premier speciality bookstore for chefs and food service industry professionals in New York City. He has been there since 1991, eight years after Nach Waxman opened the store.
In the thirty-three years they’ve been open, Kitchen Arts & Letters has seen all manner of industry members like line cooks, chefs and restauranteurs in addition to famous chefs personalities like James Beard, Felipe Rojas Lombardi and Julia Child. Matthew gave us some insight on Kitchen Arts & Letters, who their clientele is and how they compete against online book retailers.
Matthew, what was the inspiration behind the store?
Nach Waxman started the store in 1983. He was working in publishing but wanted to work for himself. He wanted a specialized bookstore and the two categories he considered were cooking and sports. He went with a culinary focus because he saw that a lot of people were making a living in the industry and they needed somewhere to go to find books and information. From there the store grew organically as he learned more about the industry.
What was your career path like and how did it bring you to the store?
I came along in 1991. I had been working in publishing at Penguin and I was ready to leave the office grind behind. I started working a few days a week here at the store and it developed into a full-time job.
Do you have a culinary background or did you learn over time?
I had never done any culinary books at Penguin. I am an avid cook and I worked in some restaurants when I was younger but never in fine dining or anything close. But after twenty-five years of catering to customers needs and answering their questions I have learned quite a bit.
What is your clientele like? Is it mostly industry professionals or casual readers?
We estimate that seventy to seventy-five percent of our revenue comes from customers who are in the industry. They could be line cooks, food journalists, restauranteurs or anyone else. There is a wide variety of background. Pros are the heart of the business so we try to find the most interesting books for professionals.
We are seeing a lot of young people coming into the industry. Is that reflected in your clientele?
We always see a lot of young people. There are certain kitchens where the chef places a real emphasis on encouraging his or her people to be up to date and reading new things. We have good, long-standing relationships with certain kitchens. We see a lot of people out of Daniel Boulud’s kitchen. Ditto Jonathan Benno and Andrew Carmellini.
Are major online retailers a threat to your business?
Every retail merchant in the country has to contend with big retailers. Everything on sites like Amazon is discounted. We don’t try to compete with Amazon on price. If you’re looking for a new book by a huge celebrity or personality you will find that everywhere.
That is not our identity. We are doing a lot of small batch book ordering. We carry books and have depth that other places do not. We also carry things that online retailers won’t have, or if you can find it online, the prices will actually be higher. We do price books to make them as accessible as possible to our customer base.
What makes the store unique compared to others?
We do our best to offer people a lot of knowledge and expertise. One of my co-workers is a butcher who is now learning fish mongering. We have staff on hand who are knowledgable and who you will not find at your average bookstore.
We also import books from about thirty different countries so we can offer resources that other stores don’t.
What are some books that have been doing well in the store lately?
Eric Ripert’s new memoir 32 Yolks is doing quite well, as is Double Cup Love by Eddie Huang. There is a book called Food and Beer about pairing craft beers with high-end dishes that is selling great. Another two I can think of are The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero and Food in the City by Ina Yalof.
You can get more information or shop at Kitchen Arts & Letters online at kitchenartsandletters.com