There's a new girl in town. ‘Albertine,’ a bookshop, has opened at the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue. The brainchild of the French Cultural Counselor, Antonin Baudry--himself the author of "Weapons of Mass Diplomacy"--the shop will carry both English and French books, thereby filling a gap left by the closing of the Librairie de France at Rockefeller Center in 2009, when they found they could no longer afford the escalating rent. Of course, by opening within the French Embassy, 'Albertine', who always was a clever girl, has side-stepped that issue.And it;s in my neighborhood. I walk over, passing one of the Embassy's neighbors on East 79th Street. Don'y you love the entrance-- the doors and the cascading flowers?
When you stop to think about it, there's much to applaud about opening a bookstore meant to bring French writers to the attention of American readers, especially at a time when bookstores, even on the Upper East Side, are closing. It struck me as an idealistic quest, a tilting against windmills, something Don Quixote might do, but admirable nonetheless. Then, too, there's the name--'Albertine' --the young girl in Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," the one the narrator first sees in a band of girls at the seaside at Balbec and who goes on to become an important character.
And, of course, visiting the Cultural Services of the French Embassy gives me a chance to explore one of the great houses of New York, the former home of Payne Whitney, designed by the ill-fated architect Stanford White who was over-seeing the furnishing of the house when he was shot and killed. At the entrance is a statue of a nude boy with a quiver--Cupid--which the architect most likely discovered on a shopping trip in Italy. And if you look behind Cupid, that's the entrance to Albertine
But, first, off to one side is an intimate reception room, all glitter and glass. Like a nook in Versailles. Why you could receive anyone-- be they kings or queens -- in such a room.
After which I come to 'Albertine', a bookstore on two levels that has the feel of an at-home library , one in which there are ground floor windows to let in natural light.
And should you climb the stairs, you will be rewarded with a view of the reading room as seen from above and that of a spectacular nighttime sky as seen from below.
Comfortable chairs and sofas offer places to relax and to leaf through books on display to your heart's content. Which is when I discover a new release by a French writer, Frédéric Gros: A Philosophy of Walking.
Right away, I found myself wondering if one needs a philosophy to do something as natural as walking? Maybe so. But isn’t it good enough simply to put one foot in front of the other? Maybe not. The book has been a runaway best-seller in France, the country that gave us the boulevardier and the flaneur.
This fondness for debating philosophical issues is one of the things I adore about the French. Last year, I had been invited to a three day philosophical symposium at Domaine Les Crayeres, a luxury Relais & Châteauxproperty in a park near Reims. A Sunday dinner at Les Crayeres remains after so many years a gastronomic highlight. Which is why not being able to attend the symposium rankles to this day.
Lastly, for young visitors, 'Albertine' has a number of adorable plush stools for them to sit on while enjoying the adventures of Madeline, Theseus and the Minotaur and Tin-Tin.
My curiosity gets the best of me, so, on the way out, I pick up "A Philosophy of Walking" to see what I've been missing. At the register, there's a newsletter detailing cultural events scheduled for the Festival Albertine, October 14-19.
For fashionistas: French Fashion and Global Style. For those interested in economics: The Wealth of Nations and the Immiseration of Citizens. That sounds heavy, non? And for the curious: Why Do We Still Read Tocqueville? I don't know why, but we do. Perhaps it's that Tocqueville, an aristocrat, was so prescient in his observations of a young America and of the dangers posed to it by an unbridled democracy. The festival is open to the public, with RSVP. I sign up. There's still time, so if you're interested, please contact: Bookoffice@Frenchculture.org.
And, then, throwing a kiss to the one-armed Cupid, I promise to return soon. Next up? A lap around the reservoir at Central Park. Where better to contemplate a philosophy of walking?