French Embassy Opens Albertine Bookstore with Star-Studded Gala

by Ben Apatoff

A gorgeous marble entrance, complete with statues and columns, greeted attendees of the French Embassy’s opening gala for Albertine: the only bookstore in New York City devoted to French literature, both translated and in the native language.The space, located in the Stanford White townhouse on Fifth Avenue at 79th Street, also hosts an impressive reading room and a lecture space. Yet dedicated readers might find Albertine’s greatest treasures on its shelves.

“I had an idea to create a unique bookshop in New York that would invite New Yorkers to peruse books the old way again — not just digital, but paperback and hardcover too,” states Antonin Baudry, the French Embassy’s cultural counselor and the author of the graphic novel Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, tells me via e-mail. “Plus, I didn’t want to live in a city without great bookstores. I fell in love with literature when I was in school, studying Proust, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Albertine kicks off its opening.

Albertine kicks off its opening.

Albertine opens its doors.

Albertine opens its doors.

L-R: Charles Ferguson, Greil Marcus and Laurent Fabius.

L-R: Ferguson, Marcus, Fabius.

Fabius answers questions.

Fabius answers questions.

Guests enjoy the selection.

Guests enjoy the selection.

Visitors browse the shelves.

Visitors browse the shelves.

Proust scholars will have already noted Baudry’s fandom from the bookstore’s name, taken from a prominent character in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). “Albertine is the name of my favorite female character in my favorite book,” states Baudry. “Albertine has a complex identity, she’s an emblem of mystery and representative of the fact that one can never really know another person, who they are fully. In a similar way, Albertine the bookstore symbolizes a quest for knowledge and understanding. Stepping into a bookshop is opening the door to a world of ideas and possibilities. There is some mystery. One has to open the book to see what’s inside. Albertine is unknowable, and you never fully get to know what’s in the bookshop because the selection is always growing and changing. That’s what I love about it. “

Baudry adds, “Albertine is a place for everyone, whether you’re French or American; a scholar, or a novice; older or younger. You don’t have to speak French to come to Albertine. This is why we called the space Albertine. Proust’s character was a mix of a bunch of different identities. She was kind of Jewish, kind of a lesbian, kind of pretty — a mix of things. And usually somewhere between sleeping and awake.”

At Albertine’s inaugural ceremony, legendary author and culture critic Greil Marcus moderated a panel with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Inside Job, No End in Sight). The panel focused primarily on climate destruction (“The term ‘climate change’ is not enough, because change can be positive,” stated Ferguson), debuting Albertine as a venue for a diverse range of topics and discussions.

“(Baudry) had read my books The Shape of Things to Come — in France, L’amerique et ses prophètes — and Lipstick Traces, and thought I might have some sense of the cultural imperatives of both the U. S. and France,” said Marcus. “He told me about plans for Albertine — which went through a very long permitting process before any thing even began to go forward — and the idea of a festival to mark its opening. Originally we were planning on September 2013. So it all had a long time to develop, for us to get a sense of what we wanted to do and who we most wanted to be part of it.”

“That Laurent Fabius could and would take time for this event — in the midst not only of the UN conference on climate change but the crises in Iraq and Algeria and the looming threat of terrorist activity in France — was remarkable,” added Marcus. “He had only a short time to work with and he quite clearly didn’t want to leave.”

Baudry noted that the opening coincided with U.N. Climate Week 2014, and he specifically invited guests who were relevant to the summit, stating, “Charles Ferguson is a very intelligent and accomplished filmmaker who we knew would shed light on our climate and represent the importance of representing our world through creative means, like films and books.”

Readers had a chance to see what the bookstore offers last week at Festival Albertine, a free, six-day program which ran October 14–19 and was curated by Marcus, with panels featuring guests as varied as Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, filmmaker Olivier Assayas, author Mary Gaitskill, graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, and Fields Medal-winning mathematician Cédric Villani. Baudry plans on maintaining a busy schedule of events for Albertine.

“The Festival is a starting point,” says Baudry. “All year long we will host genuine debates, and our intention is for the Embassy to be a place to unite different voices from France and America that will spark a stimulating discourse of thinkers.”

Albertine’s current schedule includes a promising roster of panels and discussions with prominent French writers, from Laurent Seksik discussing his bestseller The Last Days on October 25 to an evening with The Goddess of Small Victories author Yannick Grannec on November 3. And appropriately enough, Proust scholar and Columbia University professor Antoine Compagnon will be presenting his newest book, Un été avec Proust, November 13 at Albertine.

Even with its high profile events and distinguished visitors, Baudry and Marcus acknowledge the daunting task of opening Albertine in the struggling bookstore industry. “I think the store will be less part of the industry and more part of the cultural conversation of the city, like the Swiss Institute, which has built a great following over the years for any event it puts on,” says Marcus. “The bookstore has room for small audiences for interesting appearances, readings, debates, and special exhibitions — a lot will be happening.”

“We have a unique opportunity at the Embassy that allows us to let visitors really explore books at their leisure,” adds Baudry. “They can stay here for hours and read books. Nobody is going to push them to buy anything. Albertine grew from the idea that books are a living, essential part of life. I believe that philosophy is shared by many people in New York and around the world and will sustain Albertine for years to come. Plus, the good bookshops are even more than bookshops — they are places for cultural exchange and debate, places of ideas. And that is the model that inspired Albertine.”

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