Monday, February 2, 2009

A Treasured Bookstore Says Adieu

Whenever I go to New York City, I try to fit in quick trips to two of the world's greatest bookstores, Books of Wonder and Librairie de France. I was in NYC early in January, and since I was going to the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street for their Children's Literary Cafe, I stopped by Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center. To my shock they had signs up announcing sales because they are due to close for good in September 2009. Their long-term lease is up and the rent is to go so high that they've decided to close. Librairie de France is Rockefeller Center's last remaining original tenant. It has been there since 1935! According to one of the articles I located, this bookstore, originally founded in 1928, was a home for French expatriates and French publishing during World War II when France was occupied by the Nazis. It was among the very first bookstores to sell the first edition of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). Yes, that children's classic was first published in New York, not in Paris, in 1943, in both English and French. Saint-Exupéry was living here in exile when he wrote it. Hmm, is that why the Little Prince is so melancholy?

It's always had a nice selection of French and Spanish children's books, along with mystery, science-fiction, and romance novels in both languages, that I would pick up in order to practice my reading skills. There was always a huge selection in the basement of scholarly books that I never really looked it. Now, all of these older books are on sale. Many of them were published by the store's imprint, "Éditions de la Maison Française". As a rare book librarian, I can state that the prices are well below what they are worth. The new books are not on sale, understandably so, since the costs of shipping books from France to the US are ridiculous.

However, I picked up three nice books:

Cauwe, Lucie. Ponti Foulbazar. Paris: L'École des Loisirs, 2006. This is a children's biography of the very popular and prolific French children's book author and illustrator, Claude Ponti. I had never heard of him before but he appears to be enormously popular in France and has received a lot of awards. The above book is already out of print, and I feel lucky to have a copy.

When Jean Marie Gustave Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature in November 2008, my favorite listserv, Child_lit, was abuzz. Le Clézio has published several children's books as well as adult novels. People were asking if anyone had read the books, which do not appear to have been translated into English. Naturally Librairie de France had a number of his books in stock, and I selected two to buy: Voyage au Pays des Arbres and Pawana.

I loved Voyage au pays des arbres (Voyage to the Country of the Trees), which is a beautifully illustrated and lyrical book for perhaps middle-grade readers. I couldn't get into Pawana, which is a homage to Moby Dick. It feels more like a young adult book. I hope that if Voyage is translated into English, the lovely illustrations by Henri Galeron are republished with it. Unfortunately, illustrations are very rarely retained for foreign editions. New illustrations are instead commissioned. Don't ask me why!

The Claude Ponti biography made me wish I could see some of his books, and on February 7th, I went to the Center for Teaching through Children's Books (CTCB) at National-Louis University in Chicago for their annual ALA Booklist Editors' Book Revue. I always love hearing people talk with great enthusiasm about children's books. Afterwards, I gave a friend a walkthrough of the Center's wonderful library of multicultural and international children's books. They had on display many of the books that had received awards in 2008, along with a wonderful selection of books by the authors and illustrators that have been nominated for the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award. To my delight, Claude Ponti has been nominated for the illustrator award by the French section of IBBY, thus there was a display of books, including the biography I had just bought, and books such as L'Album d'Adèle and the hysterical Le Non.

L’Album d’Adèle was Ponti's very first children's book, compiled originally for his baby daughter Adèle. It is wordless and full of images of all kinds of toys, everyday objects and fluffy ducklings, that would enchant any child. Le Non is about how two of Ponti's popular duckling characters, Tromboline and Foulbazar encounter a physical object shaped as Non (No). They kick it around, crawl through it and it just gets bigger and more impressive. A very funny way of showing how children run up against the word no all the time and go down in defeat.

Interestingly, a look at the bibliography in the back of the biography shows that only two of Ponti's books have been translated into English. Some of his books have been translated into multiple languages, but the majority have not been translated. His books are apparently all still in print and available through or your local foreign language bookstore might have some of them in stock or be able to order them from France. Please go out and patronize your local foreign language bookstore. They are treasures and should not be allowed to vanish. Here in Chicago we have Europa Books, on Clark Street, just off Chicago Avenue, a block or so from the Chicago Avenue stop on the Red line. It's a subsidiary of the legendary Schoenhof's Foreign Books in Cambridge, MA. And yes, I've visited that store too. I invite my readers to share their favorite foreign language bookstores too.

The world of international children's books is a wonderful one, and exploring French, Spanish, Italian, German and other books in a foreign language bookstore, can open new worlds for both adults and children. It can be very hard to find such books in your local library unless you live in a city like Chicago, or have access to an university collection such as at the CTCB or the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Librairie de France will apparently continue on the Internet, and other bookstores may also emigrate to the Internet, but there's nothing like browsing through physical books to really get a sense of them and whether they are right for you or your child.


The Book Chook said...

Merci bien pour ce review (yes, that's right where my french ran out!)

I loved discovering these new(to me) books but I am so full of sadness about the closing of your loved bookstore. It's hard to explain to people who aren't bibliophiles, but the physical is incredibly important.

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Thanks Susan for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed my post. It's so sad when bookstores close. I still miss bookstores that have been closed for 30 years. It wasn't just the stores, but also the people who ran them. You built a relationship with them and they helped you find wonderful books. And yes, the physical is so important. I've gotten used to ordering books on the 'net but simply browsing through shelves and making serendipitous discoveries is so much a part of the bookstore experience. I miss it so much. There are still bookstores, but the kind of old used bookstores that had wonderful children's books are very rare these days....

Anne McAllister said...

I couldn't decide where to leave the comment thanking you for stopping by my blog about The 13th is Magic and mentioning its sequel. I found a copy that I could actually afford and am now dying to find time to read it!

I decided to leave the comment here because I am very sad to hear that the bookshop Librairie de France is closing. I stopped there frequently when I was in New York, and while I haven't had occasion to get back in several years, I am hoping to go this autumn and was looking forward to a return visit.
I bought quite a number of Spanish titles from them over the years, especially when my children were small.

Of course it's easier to buy books from the boondocks, where I live, in this age of online shopping (yea,!) but it's still a treat to be able to visit a bricks and mortar store and browse and savor turning the pages before buying.

Cristiana C. said...

Hello Jenny,

I am writing from Italy, where Claude Ponti is very famous too, there is a book you should absolutely find if you can: "Ma vallee'" still edited by L'Ecole des Loisirs in 1998... it is one of his masterpieces that has inspired as well wonderful theatrical adaptations!
If you find it I then wish you a nice reading!!
Have a good day,


P.S. Thank you for your blog! Wonderful!!!

Jenny Schwartzberg said...


Thank you so much for your comment and for liking my blog so much. I will definitely look for a copy of La Vallee. It sounds wonderful. Now if only more of Claude Ponti's work would get printed in the US for the enjoyment of children!


Cristiana C. said...

Hello Jenny,

my pleasure I assure you! I bet Ponti has been translated somehow... don't know though if it has been pubblished in the States, I'll check.
If you are interested in French children's books, in my newborn blog I'll be soon giving news about some new books I got in Paris last november at Montreuil book fair, a very interesting fair!!!
I wish you a very nice day.


Jenny Schwartzberg said...

According to that biography of Ponti that I got at Librairie de France, while he's been translated into quite a few languages, only a couple of his books have been translated into English. Frustrating to think of all the American children who would adore his books but can't read or buy them....

I'd love to hear about your French children's book finds. Please send me a link to your blog! My email is

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