Among the unfortunate recent victims of Manhattan’s extortionately exorbitant rents is the Librairie Française. Last year the venerable New York institution had its rent raised from $360,000 to $1 million per year. The shop was founded in 1928 by Isaac Molho a Sephardic Jew from Salonika, who was invited by David Rockefeller himself to rent a space on the Promenade in Rockefeller Center in 1935. The Maison Française, in which the Librairie was located, flanked the south side of the Promenade, with the British Empire Building flanking the north — the bit of greenery in-between is called ‘Channel Gardens’ accordingly. The sign on the façade said ‘Librairie de France’ but in conversation I have never heard it referred to as anything other than the Librairie Française.
During the Second World War, the shop also operated a publishing house called La Maison Française that printed Gaullist propaganda as well as titles by French writers like Jacques Maritain, André Maurois, Jules Romains, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was the post-war period, however, in which the Librairie Française flourished.
“The 1960s were the most glorious years. French was in fashion, we had fifty employees and we imported two tonnes of books every week,” the proprietor Emmanuel Molho told the press. “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 Prix Goncourt winner. Today, it’s a few dozen at most.”
The Librairie employed fifty people in the 1960s, but only six — including the owner’s two children — by the time it closed last year. The cost of the rent was such that books that cost €5 in Paris would cost $20 at the Librairie Française.
Needless to say, given the steep rise in expenses, help was not forthcoming from the French state, but the current president failed to lend even moral support.
“When Sarkozy came to dinner at Rockefeller Center last September,” Molho says, “he didn’t even cross our threshold.” The Librairie did, however, receive at least one presidential visitor.
“When Bill Clinton was president, he visited Rockefeller Center and the Secret Service forced all the shops close their doors,” Molho explains. “My wife, who worked at the bookstore, told them she would not close because our rent is expensive and we need to sell books. When Clinton walked past the door, my wife — who’s very beautiful — invited him in and Clinton, who loves women, could not refuse!”
“All the employees quickly assembled to see the President. Imagine that one of these employees was an emigre from the Soviet Union and he shook hands with the President of the United States!”
The first summer job I ever had as a teenager was in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center, and I loved to pop in during my lunch hour to browse and, occasionally, make a judicious purchase or two. I still have the print of Cassandre’s famous Normandie poster I bought there, as well as the reprinting of Tintin au pays des Soviets. The Parisian edition of Monopoly purchased there currently sits packed away in an upstairs closet, rendered inoperable by the mysterious loss of all the Monopoly money. Shame, as it was before the advent of the euro, so the money was denominated in francs. You could pick up French magazines and newspapers there as well, but I preferred delving into the basement, which was a wealth of editions covering an innumerable array of subjects, and in more languages than you could count.
The shop closed at the end of September 2009, but still services city schools & universities as well as the general public by mail-order online. A branch of the Spanish jewellery & accessory firm Tous will open in the space it occupied.