'Albertine,' the New Girl in Town

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There's a new girl in town, a bookshop tucked away in the French Cultural Services building on  Fifth Avenue at 79th Street. Her name is 'Albertine,' and she is the brainchild of the French Cultural Counselor, Antonin Baudry—himself the author of Weapons of Mass Diplomacy. The shop carries English and French books, filling a huge gap left by the closing of Librairie de France in 2009. Unfortunately, the 'Librarie' could no longer afford the escalating rents at the tony Rockefeller Center. What a loss that was! I never once stopped at Saks Fifth Avenue without visiting the French bookshop.

Of course, by opening within the French Embassy, 'Albertine', who always was a clever girl, has side-stepped the financial issue. Best of all, it's in my neighborhood. I walk over, passing one of the Embassy's neighbors on East 79th Street. Don't you love the entrance—the handsome grill-work, the broad steps and the cascading flowers?  

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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 here on the Upper East Side, are closing. It's a rather idealistic quest, like tilting against windmills. Something Don Quixote might do. All the more reason to be admired. 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 lives on to become a most important character.

Visiting the Cultural Services of the French Embassy offers a chance to explore one of the great old houses of New York, the former home of Payne Whitney designed by the ill-fated architect Stanford White who was shot and killed while over-seeing the furnishing of the house. At the entrance stands a statue of Cupid, one of the works of art the architect most likely discovered on a shopping trip in Italy. If you look beyond Cupid (see photo below) you're looking at the entrance to the French Consulate and beyond that at Central Park.

But, first, off to one side as you enter the stately building, off to one side is an intimate reception room, all glitter and glass. Like a nook in Versailles. Indeed, in such a resplendent room you could comfortably receive anyone—be they a king or a queen. I expect King Louis XIV will come through those doors at any minute.

After which, I come to 'Albertine', a bookstore on two levels with the feel of an at-home library, one with high windows to let in natural lighting.

And should you climb the stairs, you will be rewarded with a view of the reading room as seen from the second floor and the spectacular nighttime sky overhead. Comfortable chairs and sofas offer places to relax and leaf through books on display to your heart's content. I come across a new release by a French writer, Frédéric Gros: A Philosophy of Walking.

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Does one need a philosophy to do something as natural as walking? Isn't it good enough to simply put one foot in front of the other, as we humans have been doing for thousands of years? Well, maybe not, because the book has been a runaway best-seller in France, the country that gave us the boulevardier and the flaneur whose very existences were predicated on the joys of walking the city; namely, Paris.

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 & Châteaux property situated on the outskirts of Reims. Having visited the Cathedral at Reims where traditionally French kings were crowned, we went on to enjoy Sunday dinner surrounded by French families at Les Crayeres. That Sunday remains a most delightful memory, a gastronomic highlight, which is why each time an email arrives from Reims, my heart skips a beat. Not being able to attend that symposium rankles.

But to get back to Albertine, for young visitors there are adorable plush stools for them to sit on while enjoying the adventures of Madeline, of Theseus and the Minotaur and of Tin-Tin. Moreover, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy is co-presenting a festival for children with the Alliance Francaise.

My curiosity gets the best of me, so on the way out I purchase A Philosophy of Walking to see what I've been missing by bopping around town without any philosophic underpinnings. At the register, a newsletter details upcoming cultural events. 

For fashionistas: French Fashion and Global Style. For those interested in economics: The Wealth of Nations and The Immiseration of Citizens. The last sounds heavy, non? And for the curious: Why Do We Still Read Tocqueville? Perhaps it's that Tocqueville, an aristocrat, was highly prescient in his observations of a young America and the dangersfaced by an unbridled democracy. The events are open to the public; I sign up. There's still time, so if you're interested, 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?