Comics on display at the Albertine in New York City

A Visit to The Albertine, New York City’s French Bookstore

I visited The Albertine a couple weeks ago.  It’s the relatively new (less than four years old) French bookstore that’s attached to the French Consulate in New York City, on the east side of Central Park.

The Albertine sign outside the bookstore

You enter through an atrium with a statue in the middle, and a security check to get in.  Yes, this is the first bookstore I’ve ever had to go through a metal detector for.  I understand why, but it bears mentioning.

The statue has an interesting story, too.  It’s a replica of the one that was originally there.  It had always been in the building for decades until someone realized in 2009 that it was a real Michaelangelo sculpture, the only one in America.  It’s on loan now to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a replica of it stands in front of the bookstore.

From there, you can enter the shop, which is a relatively small room.  We have conference rooms at work that are larger.  Floor to ceiling bookshelves line all the walls, with the exception of the cash register counter in the front as you enter.

Three tables in the middle of the room display books that they want to showcase.  The third table, I remember, was filled with books about modern political movements.  I can remember distinctly looking at a table full of books with French writing on all the covers, with the exception of the familiar “Black Lives Matter” logo standing out for still being in English.

I didn’t see the comics anywhere, and I started working up the courage to ask the lady at the front counter about les bandes dessinees, knowing my horrible French accent would no doubt convulse her in giggles.  Then I saw a sign next to the staircase pointing up.  I missed that staircase on the way in, but all the kids’ books and BD were upstairs. So, up we went.

 

Entering The Promised Land

The upstairs room was the same size, save a hole in the middle to look down at the floor below.  I didn’t notice the hole in the ceiling from the first floor.   I should look up more often, because the ceiling was decorated like this:

 

The ceiling of the Albertine

This is the view you’d get looking back from the corner where the bandes dessinees are.

The children’s books stood out to my immediate left.  Then I spotted the BD to the right.  I knew from the sizes of the books that I was in the right place.

Two bookshelves stood there, packed full of BD books, with a nook in the window between them showing off some of the featured comics.  I couldn’t get a good pic of the whole layout, but you can piece it together from the pics you’ll see around this text.

There were some English language books, notably a couple of IDW books and some First Seconds and NBMs. Most were French, and the selection seemed very modern, with a stock of the tried and true classics.

I, of course, looked for the Asterix books.  I found them over to the right.

Asterix books at The Albertine French bookstore in New York City
#AsterixAgenda

They’re all hardcovers, and there’s a mix of English and French editions, though it’s overwhelmingly French.

 

The Albertine right side bookcase, full size image at 2000px wide
(Click on image for the 2x size version.)

You can see there are lots of series in here, including Asterix, “Les Sisters,” “Thorgal,” “Dad,” and plenty more I’m not as familiar with.

Here’s the window nook between the two bookcases:

Bandes Dessinées display at The Albertine

It’s a mix of books, mostly recent ones, and mostly political or social in nature.  This isn’t where you find the fun reads. This is a serious bookstore.

You can see it here again next to the BD bookshelves to the left:

The Albertine left and middle section of graphic novels

Here’s the top shelves of that bookcase:

The Albertine's left side bookcase of bandes dessinees
(Click on image for 2x version.)

The first thing that jumps out at in this picture is the Largo Winch books on the top shelf. That green icon at the top of the spine is a dead giveaway.

I was happy to flip through a French print edition of Manu Larcenet’s “Blast,” which I’ve reviewed here before super positively.

Other things mixed in here: IDW’s “Corto Maltese”, NBM’s “Equinoxes” by Cyril Pedrosa, and French editions of the wonderful “The Old Geezers.”

Here’s the rest of the book case:

Albertine bottom half of left bandes dessinees bookcase

Here you’ll see where they mix in some “Maus” volumes.

 

Physicality

It drives me a little nuts that people are so adamantly anti-digital that they’ll never give so many great French books a chance. Most, at this point, are only available digitally. If you confine yourself to print, you’re losing out on a ton of great books.

I still enjoy a good book, though.  I love having bookshelves filled with them, particularly when you can get those wide swaths with matching spines in a series.

Holding these French books in my hands was a marvelous feeling.  They’re oversized and hardcover. The art jumps off the page at this size, which feels like it’s larger than my 12.9″ iPad Pro, even though I know it isn’t.  It’s great to be able to flip through a book so fast without scrolling and waiting for a reload.

The other issue for people with books of this size and format is that the price is higher.  I think if you could see a bookcase or two like this lined with books like these, you’d get swallowed into the world.  The price is worth it for these marvelous books with all their detail, and all that art at full size.  It’s almost like every book is an Artist’s Edition, but with color.

Along with that, the paper isn’t the super cheap, color soaking variety that we get in comics here today in an effort to cut every corner and save every penny possible.  These pages are white and hold the colors well. There’s no added muddiness in the books I sampled.  They all show off the art beautifully.

And, yes, there’s just that wonderful almost nostalgic feeling of holding a book in your hand.  Some of the books on those shelves have been printed in English before.  I saw a few volumes of “Largo Winch,” for example, which Cinebook published in print form, but at a much smaller size.  Seeing those ridiculously detailed pages at the larger size was great.  In retrospect, I probably should have bought a Largo Winch book for a good sample of French book size and feel.

Maybe next time…

 

And Then I Paid Half In French By Accident

I gathered my courage together to say “Bonjour” to the woman behind the register, and then gave myself away with a softer, “Just this one, thanks.”

She rang me up and then gave me the price in French, before correcting herself with a sheepish smile and repeating it in English.  I told her it was OK, that I understand numbers well enough. I understood the price after tax from what she said in French first.

After a payment and a quick, “Merci,” it was time to go.

 

Recommended?

The Albertine on a Google Map in New York City

Yes, of course.  If you’re in New York City and interested in this stuff, it’s your best place to visit.  It’s close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — go see the statue! — and only a few blocks up from the Central Park Zoo.  Make a day of it!  Convince the family to go to the zoo or the museum and then, while you’re in the area, suggest a walk down the street…

No, I’m not thinking out loud to myself here.  Nope, not at all.

The Albertine book selection is kind of limited. It’s not like they had full runs of anything, really.  (I was shocked that Tintin only had a couple books on the shelf.)  It’s a bit hit and miss, but there’s a lot of recent releases and important books in there.  You might have to hunt for things, but there’s still a lot of good stuff there.  Like sorting through longboxes at a comics convention, it’s the thrill of the hunt, and great fun to see it all in one place like this.

Let’s face it, it’s the biggest selection of French comics you’re likely to find on the East Coast.  As long as Stuart Ng stays in California, I’m confident of that fact I just made up.

 

The Plaque in the Atrium

The plaque at the Albertine

 

Special Thanks

…to Ben Towle for letting me know this place existed, and to Jonah Weiland for the accompaniment and the picture of the ceiling you saw earlier in this article.

If you want to read another review of the store, The New Yorker has one. Theirs is less comics-centric, though. You’ve been warned.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

6 Comments

  1. This looks amazing. I’m beating myself now considering the last time I was in NYC for work was summer of 2014 so I missed them by this much. Better luck next time. I had no idea they existed either. The plaque said they’ve been inaugurated by the Minister so we should have heard about it in the news but I have no memory of it.
    If you mastered Bonjour and Merci you’re halfway already, that’s great!
    Silly question: doesn’t every public library in the US have a foreign section?

    1. After bonjour and merci, I’ve been working on my advanced French. So far, I’m in love with saying “quelque chose” and “tout le monde.” I understand that I’m not allowed to go to France until I’ve learned all the tourist phrases I need, like “Where is the bathroom?” and “How do I get to the Eiffel Tower?” (I think you just look up and follow the tall pointy thing you see towering over everything else.)

      There probably IS a foreign language section in my library and other local libraries. I’ve never thought to look there. The “graphic novel” section has certainly expanded over the years, but most of it is in the kid’s section, and most of it is manga.

      1. Hehe that would probably work. This isn’t Trumpland so we wouldn’t kick you out if you only speak gibberish, we’ll just rip you off.
        No doubt that being associated with the Consulate, this Albertine place is most certainly state-sponsored, as I can hardly imagine the kind of rent they would have to pony up in this area if this was a private endeavour.
        You must consider that the Franco-Belgian production these days is about 3500 to 5000 new albums every year, not counting reprints, so this would be an impossible task to carry everything, as well as financially ruinous. Only the French National Library in Paris can manage that. I’ve been collecting BD and comics for more than 35 years, yet when someone asks me do you know/have you read such and such it ends up being something I’ve never heard of, like, 75% of the time. I stopped feeling bad about that a long time ago, even though they invariably look at me, thinking “What kind of collector is this guy if he doesn’t know this title?” Awkward 🙂
        How’s the exchange rate between EUR and USD these days? Some of these books must be frigging expensive as imports. The Whole Foods of books or something. I can remember the looks my ex-girlfriend used to give me when I was buying something criminally overpriced, which was fairly frequent but she never got over it. I was only the occasional reviewer, never had my own critically-acclaimed column like some people so no way to get free stuff or anything lol.

    1. Thankfully, I live only about a half hour from NYC. Getting to Paris is a little trickier. So, yeah, I take what I can get. It is a fun place to visit, though. I can’t wait to make it back there someday again. I can read more French now, so I might take a bigger chance on a book to read.

      1. I learnt a lot from reading the Alix series, way back when I moved to France. They’re not available in English, so you’ll pick up some of the exception culturelle at the same time.