At NYC’s French Embassy, New Bookstore Celebrates ‘La Joie des Livres’

Starbucks is a pauvre excuse for a reading room. Writer Nancy Lazarus visits a splendid new place to curl up with a good livre.

(Jess Nash)
(Photo: Jess Nash)

albertine exteriorThe replica of Michelangelo‘s Young Archer in the entry rotunda of the French Embassy in New York is about to attract a bookish new cohort of admirers: visitors to Albertine, a bookstore, reading room, and event space that opened Saturday in the Stanford White-designed Beaux Arts mansion. It’s located a few blocks south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the original Young Archer has resided (on loan through 2019), after it was moved from the embassy five years ago.

“The goal for Albertine was to open the space to the public and make French culture more accessible to Americans,” said Antonin Baudry, the French Embassy’s cultural counselor and creator of the project, during a recent interview. Visitors will mingle with authors and browse a selection of 14,000 contemporary and classic books from 30 French-speaking countries. Most are English translations, with some titles in French. “We also plan to host two events per week, so it will be a lively place,” he added.

“Albertine will be unique and not have an institutional look,” Baudry said. The space originally served as a grand private library, the same goal as for the redesign. “The spirit of the place was already here,” he noted. “We selected French designer Jacques Garcia since he can manipulate classical forms with contemporary ambience, to give the place its original charm and purpose.” Atelier Premiere, a Brooklyn-based firm of French craftsmen, painted and detailed both floors.

(Jess Nash) 2

Visitors arriving at the lobby rotunda can opt to relax in violet upholstered armchairs. Others may gaze from a nearby doorway into the restored Venetian room, replete with gilt trimmings, as they make their way to the first floor of the bookstore. There they’ll walk on Versailles-style parquet floors, surrounded by French literature and philosophy books and busts of famous French authors, all softly illuminated by large pleated-fabric light fixtures.

The Marcel Proust reading room is the centerpiece of the second-floor space. Albertine was named after a female character from Normandy in the author’s classic In Search of Lost Time. The royal blue and gold painted ceiling astrological constellation, inspired by works of Lorenzo de Medici of Florence, is the most striking feature, as it mixes themes of art and science.

On the second floor’s arts and design shelves, topics range from Louis Vuitton to Le Corbusier, Pop Art to L’Atelier Infini. Other sections are devoted to performing arts, poetry, cooking, wine, and children’s works. A study nook off to the side houses rare collectible books.

Free events with notable French and American personalities will be held in two spacious adjoining rooms. A six-day festival that begins October 14 will feature Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, among others.

The multi-phase project has taken several years to come to fruition, and every detail has been considered. Coffee and tea will be available, but not Wi-Fi. Overall, Baudry said, “Albertine is for reading, contemplating, and meditating, and I hope there will be soul.”

Nancy Lazarus is a frequent contributor to UnBeige.