The Lady in Gold at was calling us so insistently from her home at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street that all I could manage was a quick glimpse of a sign reading “Albertine.”
I made a mental note to add this curious place at 972 Fifth Avenue, between East 78th and 79th Streets, to my list of places to see in New York City when we returned in April. It turned out to be far more enchanting than I expected.
Albertine is a bookstore that offers the country’s largest selection of books written in French, English translations of French works and French translations of English works. Its inventory numbers over 14,000 volumes, including fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels and children’s books. Shoppers will find reasonably priced selections, but there is no pressure to buy. Browsers can linger as long as they like.
Not long ago, the Cultural Services division of the French Embassy decided to create a bookstore at its headquarters that would show how important literature and the humanities are to increasing understanding and friendship between cultures. It also wanted to provide a peaceful place where book lovers could escape the intensity of the city, relax in inviting nooks furnished with comfortable sofas and chairs and immerse themselves in fine literature.
Named after the dark-haired love interest in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a seven-volume novel that was published in France between 1913 and 1927, Albertine opened to the public in September 2014.
Albertine’s home began life as the Payne Whitney mansion. In 1902, former Standard Oil Company treasurer Oliver Hazard Payne commissioned architect Stanford White to design an Italian Renaissance mansion as a wedding gift to his nephew, Payne Whitney, and it was completed in 1906. The Whitney family lived there for thirty years, then sold it to a German actress. In 1952, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the first cultural counselor to the United States, convinced the French government to buy the building for the embassy’s headquarters.
For decades, a statue called Young Archer stood inside the Fifth Avenue entrance to the building. In 2009, it was determined that it was the work of Michelangelo — in fact, it is thought to be the only Michelangelo statue in America. The original was moved, on loan, up the street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a replica now stands in its place.
Just beyond this lovely marble-columned rotunda with its pastel handpainted decorated ceiling, you’ll find Albertine. French interior designer Jacques Garcia created a ravishing interior for the bookstore in the style of a private French library.
Amber silk-shaded lamps hang suspended over elegant wooden tables strewn with titles.
Busts of notable French and American cultural figures — such as Voltaire, Diderot, Alexis de Tocqueville, René Descartes, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — perch atop celadon-and silver-trimmed painted bookshelves divided by narrow wooden panels fitted with sconces, also shaded in amber silk.
Upstairs, the ceiling features a hand-painted mural of constellations, stars, planets and zodiacs against a cobalt-blue background, modeled after the ceiling of the music room at the Villa Stuck in Munich, Germany.
Emerald velvet sofas and chairs provide a comfortable place to scan French books by Proust, Colette, Montaigne, Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac and Simone de Beauvoir; French translations of selections by Henry James, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen; and titles on art, fashion and food. A child-sized nook with a plush seat appliqued with the likeness of Babar, the famous elephant character in Jean de Brunhoff’s books, is an inviting place for youngsters to page through children’s books.
Albertine also hosts discussions about politics, economics, art, literature and the sciences. The afternoon we were there, a dramatic reading of Oh Boy!, Marie-Aude Murail’s children’s novel about siblings who unexpectedly land in the lap of an unprepared young man, was about to take place.
Albertine makes French literature available to American readers in other parts of the country. Its “French Corners” program offers independent booksellers like Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon a hand-curated selection of either 80 French books in translation or in French on consignment.