On Saturday, the French Embassy’s Albertine Books, a retail operation and reading room aimed at Americans, will become the first French bricks-and-mortar bookstore in New York City since the closing of Librairie de France’s location in Rockefeller Center in 2009.
The new bookstore will share two floors of the historic Beaux-Art Payne Whitney mansion, designed by Stanford White, with the embassy’s cultural services division at 972 Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The brainchild of 39-year-old Antonin Baudry, the cultural counselor of the French embassy and author of the graphic novel Weapons of Mass Diplomacy (on which the award-winning film The French Minister is based), the $5.3 million bookstore will stock 14,000 volumes of fiction, nonfiction, art, graphic novels, and children’s books in both English translation and French. While many foreign language books are expensive in the U.S., Albertine’s mission is to make books available at reasonable prices, as they are in France.
Albertine is named for Baudry’s favorite female character in his favorite book, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. “[Albertine] is unknowable, and you never get to know what’s in the bookshop,” explains Baudry. As for the decision to create a bookstore, he says, “Albertine brings to life France’s conviction that literature and the humanities are essential to increasing understanding, empathy, and friendship across borders and cultures.”
The inspiration behind Albertine, which is modeled after a private French library, comes from Baudry’s own love of bookstores, and concern for their well-being. “I don’t want to live in a city without [at least] three great bookstores,” he says. “Independent bookstores in the U.S., especially in New York, face a hard thing with rent,” he adds alluding not just to the closing of Librairie de France after its rent was tripled. More recently high rent has forced Rizzoli Bookstore, Bank Street Books, and St. Marks Bookshop to relocate.
Like many of the most successful stores, Albertine will offer an active events program, much of it comprised of French in conversation with Americans about literature and science. The store will kick off its events with a six-night festival (Oct. 14-19) curated by cultural critic and author Greil Marcus. Among those featured are graphic novelist and filmmaker Marjane Strapi, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.
Prior to opening the bookstore, Baudry visited bookstores around the country to get a better sense of how American bookstores operate. He singles out Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books in New York City, for helping him flesh out the concept of a French bookstore designed to appeal to Americans. He also mentions nearby Crawford Doyle Booksellers.
At the suggestion of Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Miami’s Books and Books, Albertine will also recreate the French bookstore experience at independent bookstores in other parts of the country through its French Corners program. Similar to the corners or boutiques set up in stores by art book publishers like Rizzoli and Taschen, French Corners will offer booksellers a selection of either 80 French books in translation or in French on consignment. So far, according to Baudry, most booksellers have chosen the latter. The program is set to launch with ten stores in November.