My New York Obsession

The Seriously Gorgeous Bookstore Hidden Inside the French Embassy

Albertine is more than a place for books; it’s the home of Francophile dreams.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Paris is 3,625 miles from New York City. Or none. To find yourself instantly in the City of Light, you simply have to stroll into Albertine, a reading room and bookshop hidden within the French Embassy on the Upper East Side (972 Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets).

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

You don’t need a passport, but you will have to go through airport-level security to enter the landmarked building, a 1906 Italian Renaissance mansion built as a wedding gift for Payne Whitney and designed by Stanford White (who was murdered by a millionaire cuckold, but that’s another story). It’s like stepping back in time into New York’s Gilded Age, only instead of a scullery maid, which most of my people would have been, it makes me feel like a baroness with the world on a string. This is the New York I was born to inhabit, even if it isn’t the New York I was born to inhabit.

I once saw a woman in a T-shirt that read, quite brilliantly, “I (can’t afford to) love New York.” I laughed out loud, but the truth is that even though it’s expensive, there is so much bounty in this city that’s available to the public for not a cent. On the way into Albertine, you can duck your head into the Venetian Room, which is just beyond the doors of the bookshop but still within the embassy itself. The mirror-lined room evokes Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors—quite a royal upgrade from the racket you’ll find just five feet out the door on Fifth Avenue.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Sure, my French skills are limited to croissant, oui, and canelé, but that hardly matters.

I used to make Albertine a monthly trip when I lived in the city. Sure, my French skills are limited to croissant, oui, and canelé, but that hardly matters. I suppose my lack of spoken or written French got in the way of my fully embracing the wares, which include more than 14,000 livres en français et anglais (but, let’s be honest, mostly en français). I don’t care. Like a picture that speaks a thousand words, Albertine is gorgeous enough to speak billions. Besides, all who enter this Francophile dream speak the universal language of book love.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

On the ground floor, busts of Descartes, Voltaire, and Benjamin Franklin—who in 1776 beelined to France after being named an agent of diplomatic commission by the U.S. Continental Congress—made by the Louvre ateliers stand watch over a delicious Tiffany blue interior lined with books. It’s pretty and all, but that’s nothing compared to what you’ll find on the next level. If your jaw doesn’t drop when you ascend the steps to the second story and see a celestial ceiling—this one inspired by that of Munich, Germany’s Villa Stuck—call 911 because you might be dead! In a city of awe-inspiring architectural wonders, this is arguably one of the best. (Don’t tell Grand Central.)

Photo courtesy of Albertine Books in French and English/Facebook

Albertine hosts frequent events (which include, as of press time, author Catherine Cusset speaking about her book Life of David Hockney and a chat with famed French novelist Julien Suaudeau), but I never went to any of those. All I wanted was to hear the patter of little children speaking French in a polite hush, thumb through books more cinematic than most cinema, and stare agape at the stars above—an impossibility in Manhattan but possible here.

Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a Colorado-based writer for The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram @kathrynosheaevans. For WSWD, she previously wrote about the bathroom at the Frick Collection and Tender Buttons.