Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rockefeller Center No Place for Books

Pierre Assouline takes a hard line on the closure of the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center. You don't find bookstores on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris either, do you? asks Assouline. He's right of course, economically speaking. Naive New Jerseyan that I was, it had never occurred to me, when I visited the librairie as a youthful student of French, that it was there in the "temple of wealth," as Assouline calls it, only because the Rockefeller family wanted a "European presence" in its Gotham seat.

Bibliophile that I am, I confess that over the years I bought only one or two things at the Librairie. The prices were always high, and the store, with its higgledy-piggledy arrangement and steep stairway, was hardly a model of organization. Here in Cambridge, Mass., we still have Schoenhof's, which, despite the name, is (or was at one point?) owned by Gallimard and features a fair selection of French books. But with Amazon.ca and Amazon.fr only a click away, the foreign bookstore-as-cultural-bridgehead survives, I think, chiefly as a purveyor of textbooks and syllabus-reading for foreign-language courses at nearby universities. So I'm afraid that I've been contributing in recent years to the decline of the French bookstore in the United States, even as I support beyond my means the publishing industry in France. I will survive the demise of the Librairie de France and would survive even the demise of Schoenhof's, as long as the Internet and international postal service continue to thrive.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

oh dear I am saddened as well. I knew that place well. and yes what an oasis it was though personally the only thing I bought was in Spanish - poems by Pablo Neruda (in the downstairs part) and given as a gift to a lovely demoiselle.
*sigh*


Chris P.

kirkmc said...

I recall that bookstore as being a) not only for French books, as another poster mentions; I think they had at least Spanish and German, if not other languages; b) very expensive, compared to the little store at the Alliance Francaise, where I bought books.

kirkmc said...

I should have mentioned above, in my comment, that this was 25 years ago...

Anonymous said...

Even forty years ago, when I was a graduate student, books ordered directly from France cost about half what they did in American foreign language bookstores (including Schoenhof's), and the 10 percent discount French bookstores gave students covered the postage. However, now that I live in France, I continue to betray local bookstores by buying my books from Amazon.fr (free shipping)and other internet sources.

Anonymous said...

i too have not bought more than 2 or 3 books there in the 30+ yrs i have browsed there, but it's still kind of sad that it's going away.

kirkmc said...

Personally, Amazon is my saviour. Living in a village in the Alps, there are no bookstores available to me (Ok, there's a small one in town, and I _could_ order books from them, but it seems like too much of a hassle.) In addition, Amazon FR has books in English often at about the same price as ordering from the US or from the UK. Back in the day, I would have bought those books from Village Voice in Paris, but no more.

Philippe said...

The Librairie de France had an annex on 5th Ave and 22nd St (?) that closed about 10 years ago. The annex also served as the bookstore's repository and contained a large selection of books hidden in its basement (the ground floor was for Spanish books). Many of these were quite unique and exotic: beautifully bound illustrated editions of French classics, printed in Buenos Aires or Canada. I'm looking at a copy of "Les yeux d'Elsa" published by Les Éditions de la Maison Française New York (actually printed in Canada). And an illustrated edition of "Les chants de Maldoror", editions Viau, Buenos Aires (1944). An incredible bargain. You could find special war editions of NRF authors that reached back to a time when New York was a refuge for Paris intellectuals.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I also contribute to the demise of French bookstores in the US. The librairie française in Rockefeller Center was always too expensive and didn't usually have much that interested me or that I didn't already have; but there used to be others (and I, too, am talking about 25 years ago). I live and teach on Long Island, but I purchase my French books, when I'm not in France, through Amazon.fr or the FNAC online, sometimes through a couple places in Canada if it's Québec things I want (never French - too expensive). But, isn't this an inevitability in today's economy? Still, it's a sad day when there are no longer opportunities in the largest US city to browse through French (and other) books.

kathryn.kleppinger said...

I completely agree. A few years ago I needed a copy of Faiza Guene's second book (Du reve pour les oufs) faster than I could get it via amazon.fr. So I figured the Rockefeller bookshop would be worth a shot (and the added expense), particularly since her first book was such a mainstream success. In any case, I called and said I was looking for the new Faiza Guene, and the guy who picked up said (this is a direct quote): "We don't stock books like that." I asked what he meant, but he turned cagey and asked if I needed anything else. I never figured out if he meant they don't stock popular fiction (which doesn't seem to be the case) or that they didn't jump on the "Arab writing" bandwagon. In either case, the elitism of the response blew me away, particularly since I wanted to read the book before meeting the author herself. With an attitude like that, I can't say I'm all that sorry (or surprised) to see it go...

Anonymous said...

Living in Berkeley, California, and as a francophile, I have the slight advantage of the books in the library of Alliance Francaise de Berkeley. If I need, say Rene Sedillot's "An Outline of French History" I can pick it up on Amazon or check it out from the city's "library." If I want a book in French, I can go to San Francisco's European Book Store, if I want the English versions I can go to the Stacy's downtown San Francisco book store near Montgomery and Market. Still it's a fantasy to go to Paris or even better, Marseilles.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see how much comment this post has elicited. A tip: If you don't find what you're looking for on the Amazon.fr site, try searching for it on Amazon.com and then plugging in the exact name and title on Amazon.fr. This will often make the title come up on Amazon.fr even though it didn't when a less precise search was made. --There are, of course, other French internet bookstores, but Amazon continues to be the best. --One more point: ABEbooks is nearly as useful, especially if you're looking for old and/or out-of-print books. I thought it was a boon to small bookstores that put their holdings on line until I talked to a German bookstore owner who told me he wouldn't do that. When I asked why, he said that there are people who skim off all your valuable books and resell them, leaving your regular walk-in customers with the dregs.

Mark Peters said...

Thought you might enjoy this piece on words like higgledy-piggledy:
http://www.good.is/?p=14517