July 15, 2007 The New York Times
The Tricolor Will Be Lowered at a Citadel of French Culture
As happens every July, the days before Bastille Day coincided with a modest spike in sales at the Librairie de France, the 79-year-old French bookstore in Rockefeller Center. People planning Bastille Day fetes stopped by to purchase tiny Eiffel towers, tricolor flags — “anything that gives the ambience of being French,” said Emanuel Molho, the store’s owner. But yesterday’s Bastille Day was one of the store’s last. Mr. Molho, who runs the Librairie with his two grown children, announced a month ago that the store would close in 2009, the final year of its current lease.
In its prime, the Librairie was an institution. Founded in 1928 by Mr. Molho’s father and a partner, the store became one of the first retail tenants in Rockefeller Center in 1935. During World War II, its publishing arm printed the works of many writers who had emigrated from Vichy France, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The shop thrived throughout the 1960s, importing two tons of books a week and holding autograph sessions for French celebrities like the singer Charles Aznavour.
But the Librairie has been hurt by rising rents, as well as Internet book sales and a long decline in interest in foreign languages. These days, the store imports a tenth of the number of books it did in the 1960s.
These days, the Librairie is really two stores. The cramped ground-level space stocks the kind of stuff that moves off the shelves: language tapes, Inspector Maigret novels, French translations of Harry Potter, “Little Prince” mouse pads. But in the far larger room underground, reached by a hard-to-spot back staircase, a browser can find a yard of Proust criticism slumbering beside two shelves of books about the midcentury philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Most of the books are out of print, and some still have uncut pages.
When the store closes, Mr. Molho and his children will dedicate themselves to their mail-order business, which provides roughly as much revenue as the store. “No more retail,” Mr. Molho said flatly. “Because of the rents in New York today, it wouldn’t work.”