America’s most famous French bookstore will close its doors this year after 73 years in business, unable to bear a staggering rent increase in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Outside the Librairie de France, hordes of tourists take pictures of the Center, its ice-skating rink and tree, but inside one of the first retail tenants, the shelves are slowly emptied of books.
The reason for closing this venerable institution located at one of America’s most cherished retail addresses is a simple, albeit familiar one: the rent, which is due in September, is rising, from US$360,000 to US$1 million per year.
Online book sales at bargain prices and declining interest in foreign-language books have also affected the landmark Fifth Avenue business.
And in another sign of the times, most shoppers these days come to the area in search of clothes, cosmetics or electronics.
“Of course, we sell for US$20 a book that costs 5 euros [US$7] in Paris, but there are also shipping fees for online orders,” says Emmanuel Molho, who manages the family-run bookstore with his two children. “No, what changed is the whole bookstore culture and the Rockefeller Center has become no more than just a commercial center.”
Molho’s father, Isaac, immigrated to the US in 1928 after he attended a French school in Athens and met officials from major French publishing house Hachette in Paris.
Isaac Molho opened his bookstore in 1935 at the invitation of the Rockefeller family, who wanted Europeans to occupy retail space in the extraordinary new building complex developed by the oil tycoon and real estate magnate John D. Rockefeller Jr.
During World War II, the bookstore also ran a publishing house, La Maison Francaise, that published authors fleeing Nazism such as Andre Maurois, Jules Romains and The Little Prince writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
“My uncle would print the books,” Emmanuel Molho said.
The mock-ups were imitations of the collection blanche, or white collection of French publishing giant Gallimard.
Molho said: “The 1960s were the most glorious years. French was in fashion, we had 50 employees and we imported 2 tonnes of books every week.”
People came here to talk literature and buy books, Molho recalled.
“The clients were American Francophiles, visiting Latin American francophones. They stayed to chat. At the time, we imported at least 3,000 copies of the latest Goncourt [French literature] prize winner. Today, it’s a few dozen at most,” Molho said.
In 1993, Molho closed another French bookstore he maintained in southern Manhattan, and a year later he shuttered another one in Los Angeles.
France, he said, gave him the cold shoulder despite the letters he sent to French culture minister Christine Albanel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who dined at Rockefeller Center in September but did not stop by the bookstore.
On top of the declining popularity of French-language books, the coup de grace came with staggering rent hikes. In 1980, half of the store’s well-established space went to French cosmetics company L’Occitane.
Today, a few treasures can still be found in the basement: books that are out of print, old Michelin tour guides or women’s fashion pages published in Paris in the 1920s.
Molho plans to retire in New York or perhaps take up piano, delegating to his daughter the task of taking the family business online.