Buenos Aires

El Ateneo Grand Splendid: One of the Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World

Lázaro Pérez-More

If you like to read books, feel the page and admire the graphics while drinking a macchiato or a latte, El Ateneo Grand Splendid should be on your list of places to visit in Buenos Aires.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is the kind of bookstore where you want to spend the entire day. The Guardian put it at number 2 on its list of The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores, but it is arguably the most dramatic of all. It is located in Buenos Aires’ posh Barrio Norte neighborhood, on the site of the Grand Splendid theater, built in 1919 by Spanish architects, Rafael Peró and Manuel Torres Armengol for Max Glücksmann, a prominent Austrian impresario.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

At its heyday, the theater was a favorite among Buenos Aires’ social circle, hosting countless charity events, tango recitals, and movies. It showed the first sound film in the country in the late 1920’s. It also hosted Max Glücksmann’s record label Odeon, which supported the careers of legendary singers such as Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini, as well as one of the first radio stations in the city. The edifice is in itself a symbol of the city’s burgeoning culture in the 20th century.

These days, one could be tempted to forecast that electronic books and devices such as Kindle or Ipad will replace our book printing traditions. Could books become data that only exists in cyberspace? Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said books were the most amazing instruments created by man, an extension of his memory and imagination. While some worship the book almost like a fetish, others argue that electronic reading devices are a lot more convenient, and you can carry your entire library with you on the go. The argument seems to be leaning toward convenience, but are we ready to forgo the pleasure of sitting in a beautiful bookshop reading Cortazar’s Bestiario with a latte as our only companion?

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

In 2000, the owners of El Ateneo, Grupo Ilhsa, leased the former Grand Splendid theater to turn the property into a bookstore for those of us who enjoy reading a book on paper, smell the ink, and admire the book’s design. Fernando Manzone was in charge of the renovation. Beyond the threshold, the theater is almost intact although the seats were removed to make space for bookshelves. The original red velvet stage curtain hides a chic café on what once was the stage, and together with the theater lighting brings drama to the entire place.

The meticulously restored frescoed ceilings are by the Italian painter Nazareno Orlandi, an homage to the end of the World War I. The marquis, balconies, and theater boxes are also original to the structure. The interior space is divided into three floors, including a colorful basement dedicated to children’s books and games. The top floor is used for book presentations, conferences, and exhibitions. Comfortable seating is spread around the galleries and halls, even in the theater boxes where you can comfortably preview the books before buying them. There are 120,000 tomes available at the store, which receives more than 3000 visitors every day.

A bookstore of this magnitude attracts a loyal following of avid readers and has become a stop on many tourists’ itineraries. The selection here is mostly titles written or translated into Spanish. There is a small English language section that includes the works of Shakespeare, but the main attraction is the building itself. A visit here does not disappoint. Leave it to Buenos Aires to have what is perhaps the most amazing book palace in the world.  ■

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