Nestled inside the historic Payne Whitney mansion, a building designed by the legendary Stanford White, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side, Albertine Books is a bookseller located within the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Clearly conceived as a physical medium through which to promote French language, literature, and culture, Albertine offers the flaneur a delightful sanctuary from the (often maddening) bustle and noise of New York and stands as a shrine to words and ideas. While walking together along Museum Mile, my wife, my faithful companion in bookstore lingerings and haunting historic homes, introduced me to Albertine.
A statue of a young boy with missing arms and an archer’s sling greets visitors at the entrance, politely informing all guests that they are visiting a special place. The statue is a replica of the Young Archer, controversially attributed to Michelangelo himself and now housed at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A walk through the Marple Reception Room with its columns and grand staircase delivers one to Albertine. Along the way, one passes a period room decorated with Eighteenth Century furnishings and artwork.
The first floor of Albertine is full of carefully curated English translations of French literature and French language publications. Clerks and shoppers alike chat in French, allowing one to imagine browsing a bookstall along the banks of the Seine in Paris. The second floor contains elegant leather chairs and couches and tables for reading, reflecting, or simply absorbing the refinement of the space. A nook in the reading room houses a small collection of rare books by great French authors and thinkers, such as Voltaire and Balzac. Looking up, one gasps at the hand-painted mural of the constellation beautifying the ceiling.
Places, whether they are a city neighborhood, a small town main street, or a quiet country corner, are always changing. Change is a sign of dynamism, growth, and rebirth. Unfortunately, many businesses and spaces beloved by the literati, artists, and cultural devotees have disappeared or are threatened in today’s New York City, now a premier destination for global capital and the uber-wealthy with little devotion to the character, history, or civic life of the city. How many storied bookstores, record shops, and weird, peculiar businesses have closed their doors within the past several years? Admittedly, the past recession, changes in creative and artistic industries, and the behemoth of online retail contribute to this heartrending trend.
For this reason, Albertine presents such an intoxicating surprise. Walking through its grand and, yes, intimidating doors, a visitor finds a bookstore with a very narrow and defined scope. Albertine meets the needs of customers with some facility of the French language or an interest in French literature. It offers nothing else and does not deign to apologize for that fact.
Albertine attests to France’s remarkable contribution to Western civilization and a demonstration of what is currently under attack by Islamic terrorists in that proud nation. French art, literature, science, and philosophy have shaped the modern world and imagination. The line connecting French thought with the American experiment is clear and immediate. Any casual reader of early American history understands this, and a denial of such is nothing more than intellectual dishonesty (e.g. the George W. Bush administration and its surrogates before the Iraqi War). Many of the founding fathers of America were well versed in French literature and philosophy and incorporated those ideas into the intellectual justification for the American Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution.
Albertine Bookstore is a gift to the residents and visitors of New York City. If you work in the area, stop by during your lunch hour. If you’re touring one of the many nearby museums, pop in. If you’re a lover of books, you’ll find an embodiment of your idealized vision of the world. Step into a beautiful building, marvel at its interior, and look around. Centuries of books and ideas will surround you. Mankind can create no greater magic.