I love book and collect them (thousands of them — where to put them all?). I make a point of visiting libraries and bookstores during my travels although sometimes these visits happen by accident. So it was when I discovered El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore one evening in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, as my wife and I were walking back to our hotel after dinner in a parrillo (Argentine steakhouse).
Buenos Aires is known as the “Paris of South America”. Many elegant buildings were constructed a century ago when the country was one of the wealthiest in the world, before a string of progressively worse governments destroyed Argentina’s economy. The result is a city that has a European look and feel to it, even though it’s Latin. Part of its charm are the many cafes and small newsstands around the city. It’s a place where a weak national currency and high taxes on imports (like cell phones and Kindles) make traditional printed media the most popular form of reading — like it was in the rest of modernized world twenty years ago. So it’s not surprising that there would be some fine bookstores in B.A.
From the street, El Ateneo is inviting. We entered to find most books in Spanish, which we don’t read fluently enough to even try tackling a novel. But it was very well organized, a key feature to a great bookstore in my experience. Beyond the front lobby you enter a cavernous bookshop and discover what a G-R-E-A-T place this is. It’s one of the biggest bookstores in South America and certainly the most elegant.
The building was constructed in 1919 as a lavish theater, the Teatro Grand Splendid. It was originally home to live performances, but was soon converted into a cinema in the 1920s with the birth of the film industry. It remained a cinema for decades and was morphed into a bookstore in 2000.
El Ateneo, a publishing company, refurbished and converted the old theater into the bookstore you can visit today, preserving the elegance of the building, mostly just replacing seats with bookshelves. The stage, still framed by heavy red curtains, is now a nice cafe. There are many floors of books, well organized by subject matter, and a large collection of children’s books, DVDs and CDs can be found in the lower level. It quickly was clear to me why this place had been voted by The Guardian as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
Around 1,000,000 patrons visit El Ateneo ever year. Some come to buy a book by a favorite author, some to read in the box seats of the balconies. Some come for coffee. Some, like me, come to enjoy its beauty and snap a few photos — now shared with all of you.