Interview with a Bookstore: Albertine
A little Paris in New York
Albertine is a foundation that opened in September in 2014, hosted by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. The store was opened to help promote French culture in New York, especially the literary arts. But also to make books more easily available to Francophone people in New York, especially since the store that had been in Rockefeller Center closed several years ago. The store was profiled in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and all over the French media.
What is your favorite section of the store?
Tom Roberge (Deputy Director): For me it has to be the Philosophy/Sociology corner. I love that the French so clearly distinguish between the two fields, whereas an American store is far more likely shelve Jean Baudrillard with Michel Foucault. Of course it also helps that due to the importance of these disciplines over the course of French history, we have plenty of books to fill out each section.
François-Xavier Schmi, (Director): Contemporary French literature.
Miriam Bridenne (Communications Manager and Bookseller): The children corner. Early morning, or mid-afternoon on weekdays, parents come, read stories to their kids, and cuddle on the green cozy bench. It’s heartwarming to see them completely engrossed by fiction, and to see the pleasure of reading being passed from one generation to another.
What would you do if you had infinite space in the store?
Tom: The section that’s dying to be expanded, and with good reason, is poetry. I’d love more space to showcase the wonderful things that the smaller, letter-press French publishers are doing.
François-Xavier: It would be great to have more books from independent publishers, the ones taking risks.
Miriam: I would add a section for used books: there are so many books I cherish that are out of print, and it is frustrating to recommend a title to a customer, and then realize that you can no longer order it. Plus, I love the atmosphere in bookstores that also offer used books (Strand, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris). They draw an interesting crowd.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Tom: As a team, even with one of us being an American, we know more about French literature and literary tradition than any other store in the US. It’s why we’re here.
Miriam: We have the biggest selection and do the most to promote French literature in English.
Who is your favorite regular?
Tom: For me it’s a Senegalese livery cab driver who stops by every Saturday to pick up the books he’s specially ordered, and to order more. Over the course of the year, I think I’ve discerned that he’s working towards establishing some sort of environmental NGO, and man is he doing a lot of research.
François-Xavier: There’s a journalist who stops by once a week or so to buy two types of books: serious history, and graphic novels. I like the combination.
Miriam: We are lucky to have a lot of great regulars. I have two favorites though: a man, always very elegantly dressed, who visits us every Saturday morning, between 11:30 and noon. He always starts by browsing our shelves, then he chooses a few titles before sitting in our reading room. He reads there for about an hour, and leaves. Albertine has obviously become a part of his weekend routine. Another one is young woman with a radiant smile who always complains that she is buying too many books, but never leaves without ordering and buying a few titles. A joyful book addict!
What’s the craziest situation you’ve encountered?
Tom: Night of Philosophy.
François-Xavier: Probably the customer who took over the entire counter to buy $1500 worth of history books.
Miriam: A customer stormed into the store one day, asking where we shelve the books that where discussed on a famous French talk show. We had to explain to her that books were organized by sections, and within each section, by alphabetical order by their authors’ names. She then looked at us, horrified, saying: “Then, you mean that I have to remember the names of the authors invited on the show? In terms of customer services, let me tell you, that’s not handy at all!”
What’s your earliest memory of visiting a bookstore as a child?
Tom: I remember insisting, at a pretty young age, maybe eight or nine, that my mother buy me an illustrated (meaning with reproductions of the color plates) edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I have no idea why.
François-Xavier: As a child I visited a used store that was about as disorganized as an attic, but I stayed there for hours
Miriam: I don’t really remember my first time in a store, but I have very fond memories of an atrium at my grandparents, who used to run a small bookstore. The walls where covered with shelves packed with books. It was my personal cave. I remember hiding there for entire days. Adults would completely forget about me, and I was free to read whatever I wanted.
If you weren't running a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Tom: I suppose the default answer is publishing, since I worked at New Directions and loved it there, love their books and their approach. But I might also like to run a bar in some far-flung town.
François-Xavier: I wouldn’t do anything else. Books are my passion.
Miriam: Running a Bed & Breakfast somewhere along the costal of Maine. (I’ve never seen so many bookstores per capita as in Maine.)
What’s been your biggest surprise about working in a bookstore?
Tom: Prior to working here, I worked at McNally Jackson, and then in publishing, and at those jobs it became painfully obvious that most American readers (most, not all) don’t really pay attention to which publisher has published which book. Most casual readers have no idea who published their favorite book. But the French, I’ve learned, definitely pay attention, and know the distinctions between various imprints and houses very well.
François-Xavier: The interest among New Yorkers for French culture and especially literature is very encouraging.
Miriam: How much fun it is!
SLIDESHOW: Albertine Staff Recommendations
Albertine is located at 972 5th Ave, New York, NY 10075.
All photos by John Bartelstone.