Before he became the “patron saint of food writers,” Waxman had been a Ph.D student in anthropology at Harvard, ultimately abandoning academia for a career in publishing, working as an editor at Macmillan, Harper & Row, and Crown. But eventually, the New York Times recalls, he grew “dispirited by the overtly commercial direction” of the industry, and in 1983, the New Jersey native opened Kitchen Arts & Letters. The store, as frequent Grub Street contributor Hugh Merwin noted years ago in Gothamist, may have bounced between a few different spaces on Lexington Avenue, but spiritually, for the last 38 years (and still counting), it has remained the same.
Waxman was always very clear on what the store was not. “If there’s one thing,” he told Merwin, “it’s that we hate to be regarded as a cookbook store.” Kitchen Arts & Letters was instead devoted to examining food, and our relationship to it, with what he called “full frontal thoroughness, depth, and breadth.” That meant cookbooks — rare cookbooks, global cookbooks, cookbooks in all different languages (the store also sold food-focused foreign language dictionaries for translation) — but also books about sustainability, history, biotechnology, restaurant economics, the meaning of gastronomy in the plays of Molière. You could get Marcella Hazan, but you could also get Secrets of Jesuit Soupmaking, Amy Sedaris but also Hydrocolloids, a food-chemistry textbook that had a moment with molecular gastronomists. In the basement, he established a kind of reference library, allowing chefs, researchers, and curious home cooks to copy down recipes from a collection of books too rare for him to sell.
But the books were only half the draw. The other half was Waxman (and, later, his business partner and co-owner Matt Sartwell, who will carry on the torch). He could point you in the direction of a book you didn’t know you wanted or help you track down an obscure title that you did. His reach extended beyond the army of chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers who were his regulars. Once, he advised Citibank on a banquet menu for the Venezuelan minister of finance, recounts the Times; when the American Museum of Natural History wanted food to go alongside a rainforest exhibit, they turned to him for guidance. And if you were just a regular sometimes-home cook looking for advice? He was a resource for you, too.
When, last September, Waxman and Sartwell launched a GoFundMe to keep the store afloat through the pandemic, testimonials poured in. “In the 1980s, Mr. Waxman sold me one of my first and favorite cookbooks: the original Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan,” wrote one. Moosewood Cookbook author Mollie Katzen chimed in to say the store had been “the heart and soul of the American cookbook world for decades.” (The fundraiser was a success.)
For those of us who never had the pleasure of a Waxman recommendation, there is at least this old Times “Diner’s Journal” column, in which he dispenses cookbook wisdom — a pleasure and a window into what we’ll all be missing.