The Daily


Inside Albertine

September 26, 2014 | by


Nations of the world, take note: there are a number of benefits to running an embassy out of an historic mansion on Fifth Avenue. First, look around: you’re in an historic mansion on Fifth Avenue! Second, go upstairs: you’re still in that same historic mansion, on the same Fifth Avenue! Third, take stock of the fact that, because you don’t pay rent, you can kiss off market forces and open any business you’d like … in your historic mansion on Fifth Avenue!

Antonin Baudry, the cultural counselor for the French Embassy, had such a realization a few years ago. For more than sixty years, the embassy has made use of the Payne Whitney House, an opulent Italian Renaissance–style home erected from 1902 to 1906 at Fifth Ave. and 79th St. It seemed a shame, he thought, to deny passersby the chance to see its tongue-lollingly gorgeous interior. It also seemed a shame that New York had lost its last French bookstore, the Librairie de France, in 2009 …

You may see where this is headed. Baudry and his staff are at this moment putting the finishing touches on Albertine, a new French bookstore housed in the embassy—it opens Saturday at eleven A.M. When I visited yesterday, Baudry showed me around its impressive two floors, which had already achieved—though the ladders and drop clothes were still in evidence, and the painters were still painting, the burnishers still burnishing—an enviable blend of new bookstore smell and old building smell. It resembles a magnificent private library of the sort you’d expect to find in a turn-of-the-century estate. photo-11-1024x731

Albertine takes its name from “the beautiful, omnipresent and unknowable female character in Marcel Proust’s classic In Search of Lost Time.” Its two floors will accommodate fourteen thousand books—some in French, some in English, many unavailable anywhere else in the city—from thirty Francophone countries. The shop includes a children’s section, a rare-books room, and a preponderance of reading nooks—the nook having reached its apotheosis around the time the Payne Whitney House was built. On its ceiling is a carefully painted night sky in the style of a Renaissance fresco.

Since raising enough money to make rent isn’t an issue, there’s no pressure to buy anything at Albertine, and Baudry encourages future visitors to linger, and to read, for as long as they’d like. To inaugurate the store, he and Greil Marcus have curated a festival of events beginning next month: among the many writers and thinkers set to appear are Emmanuel Carrère, Mary Gaitskill, Percival Everett, Matthew Weiner, A. O. Scott, and Marjane Satrapi, with discussions of topics as varied as de Tocqueville, Coco Chanel, censorship, mathematics, and The Wealth of Nations.


When our Paris editor, Susannah Hunnewell, interviewed Baudry earlier this year about his graphic novel, he mentioned a bit about Albertine and the embassy:

It’s designed to look like a grand private library. No commercial displays or aggressive lighting. You can buy books, but you can also just sit on the sofa and read them. Part of the concept is to create a French-American venue for international debate, to invite the most original writers in the U.S. and Europe to discuss art and finance and politics ... It’s the last building Stanford White designed. Actually, he was shot dead by a jealous husband while he was working on it. It was a gift from Colonel Whitney to his nephew, who was getting married. The Whitney family lived there for thirty years, then sold it to a German actress. Then Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French ethnologist, was appointed by General de Gaulle as the first cultural counselor to the U.S. He saw the building and convinced France to buy it. 



  1. Emanuel Molho | September 26, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    The French Cultural Counselor openly proclaims “sales aren’t the primary goal. The project has been underwritten by sponsors including LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Total Corporate Foundation and Air France at the astonishing cost of 5 million dollars. There is no rent, which is a big New York problem,” he said. “We have the freedom to show the books we love.”

    Can you imagine, considering the enormous expense of this enterprise, far from any business district, what could have been accomplished if the same financing were given to the internationally-reputed Librairie de France at Rockefeller Center for almost a century.”? Difficult to understand. Moreover, how can any small business compete with a French-government-financed-institution who pays no rent, probably no taxes and sells books at a profit, underwritten by the likes of billion dollar conglomerates and French charitable organizations.

    Our internationally-reputed bookstore carried on in Rockefeller Center for 74 years, closing with a staggering rent of $1,000 per day. Pleas for assistance to the French government fell on deaf ears. The amount spent in the French embassy could have created the world’s finest French bookstore at Rockefeller Center, one of the most-visited tourist attractions, catering to millions of international visitors. An editorial in the Nouvel Observateur proclaimed ” Emanuel Molho alerted the Cultural Service of the Embassy of France, who did not deign to reply. No one moved. No help was offered.” Le pays de Montaigne regarde mourir, dans l’indifférence, l’unique vitrine, là-bas, de son génie et de son humanisme. A croire qu’ils sont bel et bien révolus.

  2. David Auerbach | September 27, 2014 at 4:11 am

    This isn’t an embassy, per se. It’s a consulate general. (Granted, it holds the embassy’s cultural offices, but it’s rare that you have an embassy outside a nation’s capital city.) Nice bookstore, though.

  3. David Auerbach | September 27, 2014 at 4:21 am

  4. Samuel915 | September 27, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    @Emanuel Molho. Your argument is unconvincing -the French government intervening to save an American-based business from collapse? Firstly, can you imagine the political repercussions back in France if it became an issue? It is a a very strange and ludicrous idea all-in-all. Also, compete in what manner? I would agree with that argument if they were selling books for less than market value, but as the article doesn’t provide that information, I do not know. If they are not, then I don’t see the point, if they are, then I agree with you, it would be unfair competition. One could only wish that bookstores of this nature could survive on their own today, but they simply cannot. The fault is not to be placed on any government, but on society as a whole.

    What the French consulate has done is not only incredible, but also a shining example of diplomats fulfilling one of their most important jobs, namely, promoting their culture. Any venue that venerates books, promotes cultural interaction and enrichment is a thing to be lauded, not sneered at.

  5. Emanuel Molho | September 29, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Thanks, Sam. Would it not be unfair confirmation if they are “selling” books, pay no rent and ostensibly no taxes, and are subsidized by the FRench government, billion-dollar French conglomerates and French charitable organizations? It is laudable that the French government is promoting French books—I agree with you on that point—but no government should be in the business of competing with private enterprise, Moreover, no entity, government or not, would exist if they were losing money.
    I laud the effort, but sneer at the means.

    It is too late for the French government to “rescue” the Librairie de France (closed five years ago), but I can assure you that if the small fortune spent on Albertine were allocated to the well-known LIbrairie de France store in Rockefeller Center where 350,000 people visit daily (instead of a residential area), they could have created a wondrous bookstore, one of the finest in the world, exposing French culture to the entire world, not just the handful of mostly-New-Yorkers who will visit Albertine.

    In any case, I am grateful for your comment; it is good to have another perspective.

  6. Samuel915 | September 29, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Well, it’s not like the French conglomerates are going to make them set up the books in some way or only sell coffee table books of LVMH products. Money in and of itself has no moral qualities, maybe the corporations they come from aren’t the most pleasant in the world, but it is at least being used for something good. And if the money had to come from these corporations (being funded by French tax dollars never would’ve happened, so this is virtually the only way this could’ve occurred, unless some bored billionaire felt like writing a check), then perhaps it is worth asking would they have given the money if it weren’t for such a seemingly upscale bookstore? Would they have given it for a more public arena like the store in Rockefeller Center? Probably not, which means neither this would exist nor the Libraire de France. Better at least one.

    And when it comes to government expenditures, especially relating to the arts, I’m always hesitant with the idea that there is a way for it to be ‘better spent’. Can that 5 million dollars have been better spent? Absolutely, but why stop at the Librairie de France? Would it have not been better still to have saved lives of thousands of people in Africa from malaria? Because it is a substantial enough sum to do it. This is the kind of argument that has actually been used to decimate arts spending by the US government: a ‘Why are you giving money to Robert Mapplethorpe when it can be used to feed children in schools’ kind of thing. Culture is intangible, any money spent promoting it is money well spent. To say it could have been better spent here or there can easily be extended into a warped argument.

    The saddest part about all of this is that not a single bookstore of this nature can survive on its own in a city of 8.5 million people. It is indicative of the demons of our modern culture. I won’t call it decline, because I’m not sure whether it is that, but it is ugly. Or maybe it is New York City itself that is in decline, stagnant and content to watch itself wither adorned with jewels and empty high rises.

  7. Samuel915 | September 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Strike what I said about French tax dollars and funds and reactions etc. I don’t know how it would go down in France, I’m only projecting a reaction that could be expected in the United States. Though with the funding problems France has been experiencing and the dismal approval ratings of Hollande, I don’t know how using French tax dollars would’ve been seen positively. But, alas, I just don’t know contemporary French politics well enough.

  8. Whitney | October 3, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Actually it’s a pretty cheesy looking space. Cultural Services spent five years talking about this and raising millions of euros .. for what? A poky bookstore with bookcases shoved randomly in between windows? Is this feeble effort the best of French design?

  9. Abigail | October 3, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Here’s what the French promised and raised all those millions for –

    What they delivered was an IKEA version of the promise. So where did all those millions of dollars go?

    Hard to believe Jacques Garcia attached his name to this half-baked design.

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