For the past five years, New York City has—surprisingly, considering its international reputation and community—been lacking something: a French language bookstore. They had all shuttered, one by one, until the last, Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center, closed after 74 years in 2010 (it’s now transitioned to mail order). This has changed with Albertine, a new French bookstore open to the public in an unusual venue: inside the French Embassy’s Cultural Services building on Museum Mile, across the street from Central Park’s greenery. Offering books hot off the press (Albertine’s opening coincides with the France’s idiosyncratic publishing season of “la rentrée littéraire,” when a tidal wave of books are released every fall) to rare first editions like Voltaire’s 1767 “L’ingénu, histoire véritable.” Albertine labels itself as the only bookstore in NYC dedicated to French (and English) books, hosting more than 14,000 books from 30 French-speaking countries.
Named after the main female character of Marcel Proust’s “In Search for Lost Time,” Albertine has two floors. On the first level are new books that just came out in France, and literature and philosophy books—the forefront of any French bookstore. Translations are also mixed in—Camus’ space on the shelf, for example, has both French and English titles. The second level has an impressive constellation-studded ceiling, and hosts graphic novels, children’s books, cookbooks, dictionaries and guides—and even a special section dedicated to poetry. The painting and woodwork in the bookstore (accented by Versailles-inspired floors) were done by French artisans living in New York.
“We really want to engage—I mean, of course the French people living here—but more importantly, the intellectual people in New York, the Americans who are really interested by profound books in general,” says Antonin Baudry, the French government’s Cultural Counselor and the bookstore’s founder. “I think this collection of books has been curated very carefully. We don’t want to just show books that we’re supposed to show, because they’re ‘supposed’ to be good books. We want to expose people to books that we think are unforgettable. That’s the conception of this place.” Baudry wants visitors not to be pressured to buy books, but to feel free to peruse and read all day. Though technically not a non-profit, the bookstore’s sales help support cultural programs like the embassy’s outdoor “Films on the Green”—but Baudry is very firm that the team has aimed to make the prices as fair as possible, even absorbing some of the shipping costs from France.
The doors of 972 Fifth Avenue (the historic Payne Whitney House) are finally open to the public now that Albertine has launched; the second floor still functions as offices for the Cultural Services department. While there aren’t quite enough seating options yet (a table and a few couches), it’s more inviting than the floors of a Barnes & Noble and evokes a private, grand French library.
To celebrate the bookstore’s opening and also to set the tone for the space, an inaugural week of events, Festival Albertine, is taking place mid-October 2014. “What I really want is to have talks, discussions, confrontations between French and Americans,” says Baudry. “Of course each person is a personality, per se, but at the same time, you always encapsulate your context. Behind the people who are talking, you also have systems of values and thinking that are dialed in. It’s really interesting, especially in the case of French and American dialogues—they’re like cousins, not brothers, talking together.” He gives the example of mathematician Cédric Villani, who wrote that he was dramatically influenced by John F Nash, Jr’s style (who is the subject of the film, A Beautiful Mind)—the question is, what is style in math? The two mathematicians will be answering this in a discussion as a part of the festival. Other pairings include Iranian-born, French graphic novelist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi and New York Times film critic AO Scott to Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty collaborator Gabriel Zucman, and on a diverse range of subjects, from economics to global fashion to extremist fiction.
“The plan is to have a very dynamic bookshop,” says Baudry. “To have at least two events a week, and to engage American and French authors and propose to the New York audience a place where they can read books with other people and talk. A place that is alive and dedicated to books and an international standpoint on life.”
Check out Festival Albertine’s complete schedule of events from 14 to 19 October 2014 online, and keep an eye out for Albertine’s web store, which is in development, so customers outside of New York will also be able to order books.
Images by Nara Shin