Albertine

Rare first editions and a Renaissance night sky single out this opulent New York bookshop dedicated to French literature

Image: Weston Wells

Tucked inside the historic Payne Whitney mansion near Manhattan’s Museum Mile is an exquisite jewel box devoted to classic and contemporary books – some 14,000 of them – with a tie to French literature. Albertine, named after Proust’s object of affection in Remembrance of Things Past, has gained a loyal following, and cultured New Yorkers flock to this Upper East Side gem for its expansive inventory. “We have a mix of fiction and non-fiction as well as some very rare first editions,” says founder Antonin Baudry (right in first picture). “We choose titles that work for a New York audience but are emblematic of France and French culture.”

Conceived as a grand private library, Albertine is set within a Stanford White‑designed landmark, its Italian Renaissance interior reimagined by master of opulence Jacques Garcia. Sofas in deep green velvet and decorative objets sourced from Paris’s renowned Les Puces are interspersed with busts of great figures of French-American culture – Descartes, Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire – that have been crafted by the workshops of the Musée du Louvre.

Image: Weston Wells

The star of the show – quite literally – is the magnificent ceiling mural on the second floor, a Renaissance sky of handpainted constellations and planets in brilliant blue and gold, inspired by the bedroom of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Villa Stuck in Munich. “This is a Gilded Age mansion with a destination bookshop,” says Baudry. The building has housed the cultural services of the French Embassy since 1952, and Albertine launched with the support of LVMH, Van Cleef & Arpels and many others last year.

On the floor-to-ceiling shelves, filled by shop director François-Xavier Schmit (left in first picture), visitors will find philosophy classics by Foucault and de Montaigne and crime fiction by John le Carré; foodie books from Julia Child’s classics to Note-by-Note Cooking ($25) by molecular gastronomist Hervé This; and children’s favourites including Tintin, Asterix, Babar and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince ($13).

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There are also coffee-table tomes on art (Picasso et les écrivains by Serge Linarès, $254, second picture, and L’histoire de Parispar la peinture by Georges Duby, $485) and fashion (Dior Couture by photographer Patrick Demarchelier, $125, and No 5 Culture Chanel, $175), celebrating the heritage of storied maisons.

A beautifully illustrated, seven-volume set of the Ramayana ($1,283) by French publisher Diane de Selliers is exclusive to Albertine in the US, while rare first editions such as Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins ($2,000) and Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 Salammbô ($1,400) are displayed in elegant glass vitrines commissioned for Albertine’s quiet reading niche. A well‑subscribed monthly book club enthusiastically led by Monsieur Baudry and a dynamic speaker series complete Albertine’s wide-ranging, thought-provoking offerings.

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“I want this to be a place where people discover life-changing books,” says Baudry. “We hope to expose them to new ideas. We also encourage people to linger – Albertine is more like a reading room with a till than a commercial bookshop.” For a bit of France on Fifth Avenue, look no further.

For another beguiling bookshop, see the flagship Maison Assouline in London’s Piccadilly, complete with a bespoke library service and fashionable swan bar, or for more rare finds for the discerning bibliophile, see Los Angeles’ Arcana Booksfor a chic destination shop stocked with design and fashion tomes and out-of-print titles.

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