Nach Waxman, who opened the legendary NYC cookbook store Kitchen Arts & Letters in 1983 on the Upper East Side, died suddenly on August 4. He was 84.
There are few details about the cause of death, but store co-owner Matt Sartwell tells Eater he believes it was a sudden illness. He added that Waxman was sending work-related emails to him as of Monday this week. A resident of the Upper West Side, Waxman is survived by his wife, Maron, and a son and daughter, both of whom live outside New York City.
“He built the store into a worldwide haven for people who were serious about food and drink books,” wrote Sartwell in an email sent out to the shop’s mailing list yesterday afternoon. “He encouraged the best authors, respected the passion and curiosity of cooks and readers at all levels, and never lost a sense of pleasure and wonder at discovering the myriad ways people wrote about cooking, eating, and drinking.”
Kitchen Arts & Letters, located on Lexington Avenue between 93rd and 94th streets, became a global destination for books about food. It was known for its massive collection of cookbooks, but customers would also find books about food history, food science, and even random church cookbooks from the Midwest. Young and seasoned chefs alike still go to the shop to research recipes and find inspiration. From home cooks to academics, fans of the store considered it a treasure trove filled with rare, out-of-print, and first edition books.
Sartwell started working part-time at Kitchen Arts & Letters in 1991 as the independently owned shop weathered the onslaught of large chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Then Amazon arrived, of course, but Waxman set the shop apart because it was not “one of those stores full of predictable and mainstream” titles, Sartwell says.
Case in point: Waxman found a cookbook published by a local Connecticut newspaper in 1934 entitled The Post-Telegram Cook Book, which was a compilation of recipes from readers for dishes like corn-stuff green peppers and Cape Cod pudding. Sartwell also recalls how Waxman sourced books from a butter museum in Ireland.
“We were always looking for books that weren’t found on Amazon,” Sartwell says. “Nach loved the thrill of the hunt.”
Before the Internet era, Kitchen Arts & Letters also served as a meeting place for food writers and editors, says Eater critic Robert Sietsema. As a critic for the Village Voice, Sietsema visited the Upper East Side shop on a weekly basis in the 90s. He would scan food magazines or pore through a Senegalese cookbook before writing a restaurant review.
“Nach was quick to offer tips and actual connections, especially to neophyte food writers and cookbook authors,” says Sietsema. “And whenever I went, Nach would often be making introductions between customers that resulted in collaborations and other professional relationships, and even lifelong friendships.”
Sietsema started a zine called Down the Hatch in the early 90s and recalls Waxman’s support. “I was often surprised by a cheery phone call, asking when the next issue of my food fanzine Down the Hatch might be published, and requesting I bring 10 or so copies in so he could stock it, even though there was obviously no profit potential there,” says Sietsema.
Waxman grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, according to a profile in the Forward. He studied cultural anthropology at Cornell University, with a specialty in South Asian studies. He attended graduate school at the University of Chicago and Harvard before embarking on a long career as a book editor, including nearly 12 years at Harper & Row. An avid cook, his brisket recipe was also hugely popular.
The pandemic nearly shut down Kitchen Arts & Letters, Sartwell says. He organized a GoFundMe campaign with an original goal of $75,000 but supporters helped raise just more than $105,000. The shop renewed its lease and “our customers from 10 years ago have come back regularly,” says Sartwell, who also confirmed the shop will continue to stay open.
“It was a destination for so many people,” says Carrie Bachman, a cookbook publicist. “Nach was the heart and soul of cookbooks.”