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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.