May 17, 2011 | French

In Praise of Independent Bookstores

I have neglected independent bookstores in favor of Barnes & Noble, and I feel guilty.

I am still on a quest to locate French books in New York. It is not easy.

Yes, you can check them out of Haskell Library at the French Institute Alliance Française—but what if you want to buy them?

I want to buy books. And I want to buy them in French. I found some options at Idlewild Books in Chelsea last week, but I want more.

McNally Jackson Books, Prince Street Independent

McNally Jackson Books, Prince Street Independent

Two days ago, therefore, I went to an independent bookstore in SoHo that I have been to a few times and really like: McNally Jackson Books, on Prince Street. I had heard they have French books.

Here’s the thing. I have confessed this before, but I will confess it again: although I studied three languages in school (Spanish, German, and French), I had not—until this project—bought books in Spanish, German, or French since graduate school, or shortly thereafter.

It is hard work to read a whole book in a language you aren’t fluent in, and I have a very hard time getting over not being absolutely certain I am understanding everything the writer says. And I am kind of compulsive; I don’t like guessing. 

Doesn't It Look Seductive From the Sidewalk?

Doesn’t It Look Seductive From the Sidewalk?

Regret about my lack of foreign-language reading was definitely a factor in my undertaking this project.

Only 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations from books in other languages. Three Percent, a website devoted to remedying this sad fact, explains: “It is a historical truism and will always remain the case that some of the best books ever written were written in a language other than English.”

Depending on that paltry percentage for our international reading is rather limiting. Americans need to read books from other parts of the world, or we will not understand other parts of the world. We will read and reinforce our own ideas over and over, in English.

Anyway, back to McNally Jackson. It is a very appealing store, with a charming café, and I recommend it to book shoppers. 

En Français at McNally Jackson

En Français at McNally Jackson

Unfortunately for my purposes, though, the French books were minimal, and many were translations from English or other languages. 

Apparently most of the customers seeking French in this store are tourists or in any case native French speakers looking for something to read in their native tongue. It makes sense that translations would dominate for that market—but I do not want to read books such as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in French when I can and should read them in English.

Foiled in French. But not in English. To launch my renewed commitment to independent bookstorehood, I bought a book about New York City’s ethnic communities, The World in a City by Joseph Berger.

This week’s attempt #2 to find French books for sale took place at Rizzoli Bookstore, at 31 West 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. I went there yesterday, a foggy day, when buildings were disappearing into clouds.

French Retail on Fifth Avenue

French Retail on Fifth Avenue

Midtown Fog, Eating Building Tops

Midtown Fog, Eating Building Tops

I used to shop at Rizzoli. Not a lot, but with some regularity. Then the appearance of bigger, more convenient bookstores near me (Barnes & Noble in particular) cut into my Rizzoli visits dramatically, until—I hate to admit it—they stopped altogether.   

So, before yesterday, I can’t actually remember the last time I had been to Rizzoli. It is the most beautiful store: the architecture, the windows, the book displays.

Rizzoli Bookstore, East 57th Street Independent

Rizzoli Bookstore, East 57th Street Independent

Browsing Amid Beauty

Browsing Amid Beauty

The French department is on the third floor, where I found the French buyer, with whom I talked French books. 

The French department is relatively new, reinstated in 2009, I was told, after many years of absence from the store. The Spanish department was also reinstated at that time. There is a longstanding Italian department, meaning you can now buy books at Rizzoli in four languages (I’m including English here).

How cool is that?!

Promoting Its New French Department

Promoting Its New French Department

Lots of French Books to Choose From

Lots of French Books to Choose From

There are enough French books here that you can browse for hours.

Many are French translations, from English as well as other languages, which makes sense since about three-quarters of the store’s French-book customers are native speakers of the language. Native English speakers make up a minority of their customers in this department. But there are also many books by French authors.

Children's Books Are So Cute

Children’s Books Are So Cute

Egoïste Magazine Has a Cult Following

Egoïste Magazine Has a Cult Following

By the way, the store’s manager told me the magazine above, Egoïste, comes out only every few years. It has a fanatical following, I have read online.

I was excited to find a relatively new history of this city in French: Histoire de New York by François Weil. I am going to try to read it by the end of my French unit, which comes May 31. The book was not cheap: $55 with tax.

To complement my purchases, I went to Haskell Library and checked out some New York-themed books. As I write this, I am a few pages into a book called New York journal d’un cycle, by Catherine Cusset, which appears to be about (among other things) the inherent drama of riding around the streets  of Manhattan on a bicycle, something I myself have never dared to do.

La Parisienne Diner, Not So Parisian

La Parisienne Diner, Not So Parisian

The book has already introduced me to an impolite word, couillon, not found in my dictionary, which apparently means something like “idiot.”

I think perhaps it could be shouted at a taxi driver who cuts you off when you are riding around on your bike, though it’s probably more helpful in Paris than in New York.

On my way home from Rizzoli and Haskell Library, I passed La Parisienne Restaurant/Diner. It is on Seventh Avenue near Central Park, but the menu didn’t look as though it had much to do with Paris.

Except even a (misleadingly named) diner can look romantic in the rain.

Comments (4)

Katherine • Posted on Thu, May 19, 2011 - 10:57 am EST

I went through your same exact struggle a few years ago searching for French books in NYC.  I didn’t have any luck so on a trip I made to France, I brought an empty backpack and filled it with about 50 books.  I spent most of my trip in French bookstores.  Every foreign trip I make now revolves around buying books from that country in the native language.  Needless to say I have a pretty big collection.  Can’t say I have anything New York related, most of it is classic lit.  I really recommend reading Le Petit Prince or L’Etranger.  Great quick reads you will definitely find in most stores.

Ronda Murdock • Posted on Mon, May 23, 2011 - 1:31 pm EST

For people who love French books, old and new, the Haskell Library offers a book sale cart in the library where books are only $1 each. (You do not need to be a member to buy them.) These are generally books our members have donated to us. The subjects range from contemporary fiction to classic French lit, guide books, French language textbooks and other non-fiction subjects. We also sell some books in new condition at the library checkout desk for $10 each. These are for the most part contemporary novels that were the subject of our previous book clubs. In addition, the FIAF Language Center sells new books online through La Boutique: The H.askell Library will hold its annual book sale at FIAF’s Bastille Day celebration, taking place on Sunday July 10th from Noon to 5pm; 60th St between 5th Ave/Lexington. Our booth is usually near the FIAF entrance at 22 E 60th St.

Charles • Posted on Wed, May 25, 2011 - 12:38 am EST

NYC used to be better for French books. Until a few years ago, there was the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center. It closed in 2009. I understand they still do mail order.

There also used to be an enormous foreign language bookstore on 5th avenue, across from the Barnes and Noble (circa 1984) not terribly far from Washington Square that was mostly French, Italian and Spanish.  It had two floors.  I don’t remember when it closed.

Amit • Posted on Mon, August 31, 2015 - 2:37 pm EST

I am a Barnes & Noble employee and have worked at my store since it opened on 9/12/2001.  When we first started we carried about 15-20 French books as well as a few in German, Italian, one or two in Russian and several shelves of Spanish.  After a few years we were no longer modeled to carry books in languages other than Spanish, although we can still often order books in French and other languages.  The website also links to a marketplace of new and used booksellers and I have ordered French books this way, sometimes from European bookstores.  Now we will probably have _Le Petit Prince_ in the children’s section as well as a few house and women’s magazines in French. 
Our nook electronic reader allows instant access to books in many languages.  Initially, they were mostly google books in the public domain that had been haphazardly scanned in.  These books are free, but the frequent errors are frustrating and demand a high reading level to correct for these faults. There has been a big change in the last year or two and there is now a wide range of current French books available.  There are even many books in languages like Romanian and Hungarian.  For sustained reading, the black and white nook simple touch is better, in my opinion, than the fancier color nooks.  The Simple Touch does not have any other internet capability, but has nice clear print that can be set in many font sizes for easy reading.  If you don’t wish to purchase a device, there is free software at in the nook section for computers, phones, and tablets. 
When you expressed a wish for books in French about New York, I immediately thought of Catherine Cusset’s _Jouir_.  It is a short novel, but the setting is rather vague.  Cusset was a professor at Yale.  It is interesting that she (and other contemporary authors like Michel Houellebecq) present untranslated English for their French readers.  She did translate some words originally written in Italian.  I liked her _La Haine de la Famille_ much better which looks at different members of a family in successive sections, exploring thematically, rather than chronologically.  Flipping through time it tells the family’s story from WWII, through the Algerian War, to the end of the millennium.  This is set mostly in France with detours to Algeria and the US. 
Another author I really like is Amélie Nothomb who writes short wild books that are fast reading.  She comes out with a book each fall for the French rentrée littéraire.  This article  calls her the “Woody Allen de librarie” for her reliable annual output. 

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