Albertine Books in French and English, housed in one of the few remaining iconic Stanford White-designed mansions on Fifth Avenue , opened its doors on September 27, 2014. It was just in time - New York had lost its last French bookstore, the Librairie de France, in 2009.
Albertine is one of the most charming bookstores I had ever seen. I told the story about the house and Michelangelo statue in the foyer in my previous post.
The mansion was bought by France in 1952. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French ethnologist, who was appointed by General de Gaulle as the first cultural counselor to the U.S. , saw the building and convinced France to buy it.
Albertine is devoted to French works in both English and French and offers the largest selection of French literature in the United States, with more than 14,000 titles from 30 French-speaking countries. The two-floor space is truly an escapist's dream, with a designated reading room and lush sofas and armchairs, all housed in the French Embassy.
The store is named after the main female character of Marcel Proust's "In Search for Lost Time," Antonin Baudry, the French government's Cultural Counselor and the bookstore's founder, quoted Marcel Proust in his note: “It is life that, little by little, case by case, enables us to observe that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning but by other powers. And then is it the intellect itself which, taking note of their superiority, abdicates its sway to them upon reasoned grounds and consents to become their collaborator and their servant. It is faith confirmed by experiment.”
The centerpiece of the entrance of the building is a replica of Michelangelo’s Young Archer. The original had been in the lobby of the mansion for decades until it was discovered to be a Michelangelo in 2009. As I know it is the only Michelangelo statue on American soil. It is currently on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wrote about the statue in my previous post about Albertine.
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 hosts graphic novels, children's books, cookbooks, dictionaries and guides—and even a special section dedicated to poetry. There is a selection of rare books behind glass in the reading room, including a 1650 edition of Descartes’s.
French designer Jacques Garcia, known for designing the The NoMad Hotel in New York City created the interiors. Garcia drew inspiration for Albertine’s interior motif from a description of the ceilings of Lorenzo de Medici’s villa, created in the 1500s, that captured “the knowledge of the world.” The final product — a hand-painted mural of constellations, stars, and planets — was modeled after the extraordinary ceiling of the music room at the Villa Stuck in Munich, Germany, crafted by Franz von Stuck (1863-1928).
The painting and woodwork in the bookstore (accented by Versailles-inspired floors) were done by French artisans living in New York.
Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy and Albertine's creator, remarks, "Albertine is designed to be a peaceful haven at the edge of Central Park, away from the bustling city, where those passionate about books and culture can immerse themselves in literature and reading in a setting conducive to reflection, inspiration and discussion."