Discover more from on hand
Matt Sartwell, managing partner Kitchen Arts & Letters
Issue 11: An interview plus resources to support AAIP communities.
Why hello there! Welcome to on hand! If you’ve landed here and somehow aren’t subscribed, I got you:
Tucked on a quiet street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is the 30-year-old Kitchen Arts & Letters, 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.
This interview is an oldie but goodie. A few years ago, I 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: 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.
I began working more days and this became what I did full time, and eventually 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.
Brianna Plaza: So, the store’s been around for more than 30 years.
Matt Sartwell: 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 through the era of e-books?
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, Nach 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 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.
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. 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.
Other things ~
Last week was a hard week, on top of so many other hard days and weeks, for Asian Americans in the United States. I can’t begin to know what it feels like to live in this moment but I am thinking of all the families of those affected, as well as continually working to be a better ally and friend to the AAIP community.
Here is a very non-exhaustive list of some resources I’ve seen for learning, getting involved, and donating. There are so many resources, so if you’ve found something you like, share it in the comments.
I signed up for a few volunteer opportunities in New York City like this one, so I’d encourage you to look for places to volunteer in a Chinatown (or anywhere, really) near you.
Donate to Heart of Diner, an organization fighting food insecurity and isolation experienced by Asian American seniors. If you can’t afford to donate, there’s also an opportunity to write notes to elders.