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Culture

In pictures: the French bookshop seducing New York

© Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24 | Inside the Albertine bookshop on Fifth avenue in New York.

Text by Sophie PILGRIM , in New York

Latest update : 2014-11-28

Five years after New York’s last French bookstore closed its doors, the city’s francophones and francophiles are celebrating the opening of a charming new French bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Albertine, which takes its name from the enigmatic love interest of Marcel Proust’s 'In Search of Lost Time', occupies two floors of a Fifth Avenue mansion facing Central Park. It’s housed within the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and is the creation of Antonin Baudry, the embassy’s Cultural Counsellor.

“It made no sense that such an international city didn’t have a French bookstore,” Baudry told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview. “Francophone New Yorkers were coming back from Paris with suitcases crammed with books.”

In response, Baudry cleared two levels of “messy” offices in order to make space for Albertine and its 14,000 titles, which include French adaptations of English novels, English-language versions of French novels, French classics, and even rare originals of titles by Pierre de Marivaux, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Molière.

Inspired by the ornamental Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, Baudry asked Jacques Garcia, the French architect behind the Hôtel Costes in Paris and the NoMad Hotel in New York, to create a space as comfortable as a place to be lived in. “I wanted nothing in the library that we wouldn’t want in our own living rooms,” Baudry said.

The result is seductively inviting. Gold cloth lamp shades hang over books stacked on dark wooden desks, while velvet settees and chairs invite readers to linger. On the second floor, a Florentine-inspired astronomical mural -- which was built in France and transported to New York by ship -- cloaks the ceiling. A storybook rope hangs through an inverse balcony, heightening the sense of fantasy.

Time Out New York described it as, “truly an escapist's dream”.

Hard to leave

“Albertine is the emblem of the person you never get to know. You can live with Albertine, sleep with Albertine, be obsessed with Albertine... But you’ll never really know her,” Baudry said, explaining why he chose the name. “It’s a good metaphor for a bookshop. You come here looking for something specific, but you never know what you’re going to find.”

That was certainly true of the customers visiting the shop on a warm October day last week.

A Danish woman, seeking a book for her friend’s French-speaking daughter, sat down to read an English-language copy of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, and left -- two hours later -- with a coffee table photobook.

Antonin Baudry, the creator of Albertine, reads a passage from Marcel Proust's novel of the same name (the last remaining copy of the book in the store). © Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24.

Two middle-aged women from Paris came in to buy a New York city guide and left with two additional novels. Two elderly French men, residents of the Upper East Side, sought gifts for their wives, but left with gifts for themselves.

Another local had come by to purchase a title by French author Patrick Modiano, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature two days earlier. There was nothing in stock.

“That’s what happens when someone who’s not very well known wins the prize,” said Erol Hakanoglu, who lives four blocks from the store. Despite the disappointment, he stayed for another hour.

Upstairs, two bilingual children were making their way from one corner of the bookstore to another. “We’ve never seen so many French books,” said Margot Casadevale, 11. “Look Margot, this one is like a dictionary,” said her eight-year-old brother, Gregoire, pulling out a hardback trilogy.

Unexpected popularity

Baudry has certainly succeeded in creating a space where people feel comfortable. “This is a place not only to find books, but to find people. We don’t want people to feel like they have to buy something,” Baudry said. But they do.

Since the store opened on September 27, Albertine has sold out of dozens of titles (not only those by Nobel Prize-winners). “We didn’t expect such success,” said librarian François Xavier Schmidt. “Childrens books and French classics are selling at an extraordinary rate.”

One in need of restocking is ‘Albertine’ itself, whose popularity (there was only one copy left when we visited), might imply a certain sentimentality among the shop’s visitors, some of whom come just to see the now famous bookshop itself.

Schmidt, who ran a library in Toulouse before moving to New York to work with Baudry, said that an initial “eagerness” from French customers, who had been missing a French bookstore in New York since the Librairie Française was priced out of the Rockefeller Center in 2009, has since been complemented by a surge in interest from Americans and other nationalities. “Now we get as many American customers as we do French,” he said.

The difference with his library in Toulouse, Schmidt says, is that in Toulouse he “knew everybody who walked through the door”.

But from the look of things on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, it won’t be long before Albertine has regulars of its own.

Date created : 2014-10-20

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