An Oasis for Kids and French Book Lovers on the Upper East Side

(Photo by Thomas Chesseboeuf/Instagram via French Morning)

A wooded, red-painted storefront and an old-fashioned sign: If you love books, you just can’t pass by La Librairie des Enfants (Kids’ Bookstore) without stopping, out of curiosity. Once inside, the first impression is confirmed: It feels good, and you know you will probably spend some time there.

The Librairie des Enfants opened its doors in December on a quiet Upper East Side street. As its name suggests, it is mainly a kids’ bookstore. For founder Lynda Ouhenia, a Franco-Algerian married to an American, it was an idea that went through her mind for a while.

“My kids grew up in New York and it was difficult for me to find books in French for them,” she said. When, a few months ago, she found a store space for lease just steps from her home, she leaped at the opportunity. “I chased the real estate agent for four months before he accepted!” A friend introduced her to Matthieu Eveillard, a French librarian in Bretagne as passionate about books as her, who became very interested in the adventure.

Inside the bookstore, the royal blue walls are covered with shelves with books for all ages. Teenagers will find the manga and “heroic fantasy” books that are all the rage in France. Their parents will no doubt add to the list some French literature classics. For the youngest ones: documentaries, comics and bilingual picture books. And for the babies, the audiobooks that are so popular in France. In the back of the store, La Librairie des Enfants offers a library collection, accessible through monthly or yearly subscription.

“Finally, the most difficult part has been logistics like importing books ordered from French publishers, or even shipping costs,” explains the bookseller. The bookstore has now a substantial stock of books in the shop’s basement. “This used to be an Italian restaurant, and the old cold room is now our warehouse,” said Lynda Ouhenia with a laugh.

Matthieu Eveillard and the founder share the same passion for children’s literature and fine books. It’s impossible to make them single out just one work: They know all of them because they picked them themselves. As for the games, both colleagues share the same method of following their heart, as with “Les Jouets Libres” [Free Toys], a brand 100 percent made in France, coloring posters of cities, or creative pastimes.

In another space, a comfortable carpet and miniature tables and chairs host the “Petites Histoires” [Small Stories], a series of activities for each morning of the week and, shortly, also the weekend. The kids are divided into groups based on their age, from 18 months to 8 years. “We read stories revolving around a theme that changes every week, usually connected to the season,” explained Matthieu Eveillard, who runs those 45-minute sessions around an animated reading, songs and manual activities. And if the readings are in French, the booksellers don’t want to forget the little Americans. The narration is dramatized enough so that non-French speakers can understand and participate. Besides, books in English are also available: “We realized that parents from the neighborhood also love to come here,” said Lynda Ouhenia.

The bookstore’s latest project: a puppet theater. “I was brought up watching Guignol plays at the Jardin du Luxembourg,” she said. “I’d really love to introduce them to the kids here!”

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