Our Town mourns the loss of Nach Waxman, founder and owner of the famed bookstore Kitchen Arts & Letters, who died on August 4 at the age of 84. Matt Sartwell, co-owner of the shop on Lexington Avenue near East 93rd Street, told Patch that the cause was a sudden illness. Sartwell worked with Waxman since being hired as a clerk in 1991.
In 2017, Waxman received an OTTY (Our Town Thanks You) Award for his contributions to the life of the neighborhood. In remembrance, we offer an excerpt from the profile of Waxman that ran in our newspapers at the time, “A Readable Feast,” by Michael Garofalo:
Kitchen Arts & Letters has been a Lexington Avenue fixture for more than three decades, but the bookstore’s impact extends far beyond the Upper East Side. Culinary professionals the world over — along with home cooks from around the corner in the East Nineties — come to founder Nach Waxman for his expertise in works on food and drink. Waxman grew up in a kosher household in Vineland, New Jersey. “Ethnic food was spaghetti and meatballs,” he says, looking back. Though he no longer keeps kosher (“It’s left me”), his childhood experience with food left a lasting imprint — as he describes it, he “internalized” important aspects of what it means to cook by spending time in his mother’s kitchen. “People should really see food being made,” he says. In college, armed with a copy of “The Joy of Cooking” (a gift from his mother), he set out on his own kitchen journey. “I never wanted to stop cooking after that,” he says.
Waxman later found his culinary passion in the flavors of India, which he studied as a graduate student in anthropology. It’s clear that the academic discipline informed the mission of Kitchen Arts & Letters. “For years, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that it’s not a cookbook store,” he says. Rather, the store is a compendium of works relating to the culture and history of food, including recipes, of course, but extending to science, production, distribution, and beyond. “That remains a dominant part of my thinking,” he says. “Food is just one little piece in a lot of different things.”
Waxman opened the store in 1983, after more than a decade working in publishing. “I thank the mercy of heaven every day that I didn’t choose open a general bookstore,” he says. The sharp focus of Kitchen Arts & Letters allowed the store to develop a customer base of professionals from the food world, who account for 60 percent of sales. “Those people continue to buy books,” Waxman says. “They want expertise and guidance.”
These days, most of the store’s day-to-day operations are handled by Waxman’s partner Matt Sartwell (“He does the heavy lifting,” Waxman says), while Waxman focuses on the aspect of the business he is most passionate about — helping customers find rare and out-of-print books. Waxman draws on his decades of connections in publishing and retail to track down hard-to-find titles, often sourcing books internationally. In the market for a decades-old multivolume French-language encyclopedia on the wines of Burgundy, but can’t seem to find it anywhere? Nach Waxman can help. “The interesting part is the books that you discover that you never knew existed in the first place,” he says.
Waxman and his wife are still an avid home cooks, but “fancy cooking” and complex recipes have little appeal. More captivating is the beauty in simplicity — “three to five ingredients put together in the most thoughtful way possible.” He grows rapturous as he describes a simple pasta dish of olive oil, anchovies, red pepper, garlic. “I can’t think of anything better,” he says.
When he was scouting locations for Kitchen Arts & Letters, Waxman, a longtime West Sider, chose the Upper East Side for practical reasons. In the early 1980s, he says, “It was affordable, which is ludicrous in current terms.” The East Nineties were different then — the store was held up twice in its early days — but over the years, Waxman developed an affection for the area. “I’ve really become attached to the neighborhood,” he says. “To the people, to its history, to Yorkville down the hill.”
“It’s a wonderfully friendly place,” he adds.