Since 1952, the Payne Whitney mansion on Fifth Avenue has housed the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, but the building wasn't open to the public until 2014, with the launch of Albertine, a bookshop devoted exclusively to books in French and English.
With more than 14,000 contemporary and classic titles from 30 French-speaking countries, and a lively events schedule full of international guests, Albertine's mission—to promote French-American intellectual exchange—is evident, even in the details (the shelves are topped with busts crafted by the ateliers of the Musée du Louvre of Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Tocqueville, Washington, Descartes and others).
In the wake of launching The Albertine Prize, an award to recognize American readers’ favorite contemporary Francophone literature, we spoke to cultural counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur.
From what I understand, Albertine was an ambitious project that met with much positive reception when it opened in 2014. Could you speak to how the store’s mission or role in the literary community has evolved since its opening?
Opening a bookstore was a bet. Partly because it was going to be a French bookstore in New York, and partly because Americans don’t read that much. So it was always going to be a bet. But I think we won that bet.
When we opened, we got a lot of attention, a lot of publicity. We’ve had wonderful guests. For instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates hosted our third annual Festival Albertine in November, and there was a very positive reaction—I mean, thousands came.
And then you have the fact that the American public has always been in love with French literature.
I read that Albertine hoped to cultivate a sense of European café culture, do you think it’s done that?
The French community’s reaction was obviously really good, because they can come to Albertine and feel like they're in France. They come to discover the newest titles, seek recommendations, and spend time in the space.
Americans often come looking for the classics—Balzac, Proust etc.—but our hope is that once they're here they will discover contemporary French literature as well.
We tend to have our repeat and usual customers, but then we have a lot of programming, which is always bringing in new people. You see, it’s much more than a bookstore. It’s more of a cultural hub, a place for intellectual debate and exchange. We always pair American guests with French guests, so that there is a spirit of conversation. Often people will come for the American speakers, but discover French voices in the process.
For instance, at the festival you could hear historian Benjamin Stora speak with Jelani Cobb about how evolution in identity construction might make way for a French Barack Obama, or the graphic novelist Catherine Meurisse discuss with David Simon how drawing helped her get over the trauma of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The idea is always to inspire conversation and exchange.
Would you say you get more francophone customers longing for a taste of home, or anglophone customers in search of something beyond?
During the day, it’s 50-50. A lot of people come over from the Met, since we’re right across the street. We’re in such a wonderful building—part of what's nice about Albertine is that the space can be opened up for people again, like we're giving back access to this architectural treasure.
At night it’s mostly Americans.
Tell us a little about the books.
How the books are arranged and chosen is all about our mission: to promote conversation between French and American literature. So every book, whether in French or English, has something to do with France. Either it was written in France or is about France etc.
The idea is, people will come in and wander around and everything is mixed, so there can be discovery. And the staff are very knowledgeable and fluent about both literary traditions, so they can guide people to what they might like.
We also like to target different communities, so we have a very good children’s section and a rare books collection, and we push contemporary fiction and nonfiction strongly. It's all part of our mission to internationalize the authors we carry. Though it’s funny, there will be these waves of demand after an article comes out about this book or that book, and then everyone will come in looking for it and we will run out.
You’ve just launched a prize, tell us about it, and how it fits into the other ways Albertine supports translation and translators.
Our mission can be divided into two parts: to support French books, and to get the American public to interact with them. So we have programs that support translation in two ways, at two different moments in the process.
First, the Embassy offers support for translators of books in French through the French Voices Award. So for books that don’t have a publisher yet, it is useful for a translator to be able to approach them and say, “I have this money from the French embassy to translate this book,” and that will make the project more appealing.
The idea of the Albertine Prize is the second moment. Once a book is translated, we want the public to read it, so we are shedding a special light on ten of these books with the Albertine prize. We’re asking people to read and vote for one of the ten books on the shortlist (technically, you're authorized to like three of ten, and you don't need to read all of them to participate).
We’re lucky to have the support of people like Lydia Davis, for instance, who will be one of the Prize's Honorary Chairs. The other will be French literary critic and TV and radio host, François Busnel. Three finalists will be announced on April 14th, and following a second round of voting, to end on April 30th, the winner will be announced on June 6, 2017.
A $10,000 prize will be split between the author and translator of the winning title.
[Full disclosure: Shortlisted title Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine was translated by The Arkansas International's translation editor, J.T. Mahany.]
Before we finish, is there an element of Albertine you particularly enjoy or admire?
What I really like is it doesn’t feel like a bookstore. Or it doesn’t feel commercial—it feels like a private library. And the ceiling is beautiful. It's based off the music room ceiling at the Villa Stuck in Munich, Germany. So people feel invited to come and stay. It’s a kind of nest or heaven.