UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — A storied Carnegie Hill culinary bookstore that has helped educate and entertain generations of chefs, from home cooks to Julia Child, has struggled to keep its doors open during the pandemic — but a groundswell of support through an online fundraiser may have given it the boost it needs to stay alive.
Kitchen Arts & Letters, in business since 1983 on Lexington Avenue between 93rd and 94th streets, is one of just three food-focused bookstores left in New York City, its owners say. The shop has built up a loyal following over the decades among customers who appreciate the diversity of its offerings — not just big-name cookbooks, but also eclectic volumes by obscure writers.
“Whether it’s a book on the beverages of Oaxaca or on flatbreads from the country of Georgia — they’re the kinds of things that don’t get picked up by major publishing houses,” managing partner Matt Sartwell told Patch.
Foot traffic to the store began drying up this spring, and coronavirus shutdown orders forced it to close completely for about three months, Sartwell said. The crisis threatened to destroy what made KAL special: its ability to take risks by investing in little-known authors at work on their passion projects.
“When money got tighter I kept having to say no to things,” Sartwell said. “It wasn’t good for authors and it wasn’t good for us.”
More pressing, the store fell behind on rent and owed money to its vendors. Off-site events like the New York Times Food Festival, where KAL typically runs a pop-up shop, were canceled. Autumn, normally the most profitable season, seems unlikely to match previous years’ sales.
With winter approaching, “We could’ve limped along until the end of the lease” in February, Sartwell said, before likely shutting down for good.
With some reservations, Sartwell and founder Nach Waxman launched a fundraiser over GoFundMe last week. They asked customers to help them raise $75,000 to survive the crisis, describing a few of the regulars who have stopped in over the years.
“Nach remembers Julia Child walking in, kicking off her shoes, and sitting down on the floor to inspect the contents of the French section,” they wrote. “We want to remain the place you find the books you were always looking for, the place that has the books you never dreamed existed.”
Their plea was boosted by food-world tastemakers: New York Times food critic Tejal Rao, New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner (who said she was “putting her life savings” into the fundraiser) and dozens of others.
Within 48 hours, they blew past $75,000 in donations. Sartwell and Waxman raised the ceiling to $100,000 on Saturday, and were less than $4,000 away from meeting it by Thursday afternoon.
“I didn’t anticipate anything like this level of enthusiastic support,” Sartwell said Thursday. “I’m still walking around feeling stunned, happily stunned.”
Sartwell said he and Waxman are brainstorming ways to bring the store back stronger than before, including by revamping its website to add a searchable catalogue of more than 12,000 titles that KAL typically keeps in stock.
Things won’t be normal for a while. The store’s typical fall events, like holiday cookie and fruitcake contests — “When people can come in and crowd around a table and pluck food off a plate,” Sartwell said — are off the table this year. Perhaps by next fall, he suggested, they will return.
In the meantime, Sartwell said he is celebrating the shop’s unlikely survival.
“We’re so excited that this is going to mean we can stick around,” he said.
Kitchen Arts & Letters, at 1435 Lexington Avenue, is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.