Literature plays a very important part in Argentineans' lives. Spending time reading or wandering through bookshelves at stores, libraries or personal collections choosing the perfect book is almost a ritual that every Argentinian experiences many times a year. It’s not strange to catch people reading on public transport and in parks and cafés, traveling with their minds in imaginary worlds, losing themselves in pages of novels, short stories, biographies and every genre imaginable. At least one book is carried in every porteño's bag and it’s almost certain that their bookshelves are filled with volumes waiting to be read.
The process of choosing a new book is very special and every citizen enjoys spending their afternoons wandering through bookshops. Contrary to the global tendency of online shopping and e-books, Argentines still prefer to buy their books from a store and carry them wherever they go. That’s why Buenos Aires is the city with the most libraries per person in the world. With an astonishing number of approximately 730 bookshops, the wide variety is wonderful: from independent bookshops to big chains, all the bookshops have their own charm and groups of people finding shelter between pages and ink can be found in every one of them.
One of the most special bookshops in the city is El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which was once one of the most luxurious theatres in Buenos Aires. Built in 1919, the building is a symbol of Argentina’s culture in the 19th century, a time when the country was recognized for the glamour that prevailed in the streets. The original theatre was known as Teatro Norte and was opened in 1903. However, in 1919 it was bought by an Austrian immigrant, Max Glucksmann, who remodeled and enlarged the building. After that, the new theatre was known as Splendid Theatre and it rapidly became the most magnificent one in the area. The theatre is is located in an area of Recoleta that resembles the Saint Germain neighborhood in Paris, due to the French influence on the architecture.
Since its opening, the theatre has represented the lifestyle of Buenos Aires' golden age. In the 1920s the city started to be recognized as the birthplace of innovative cultural activities such as cinema, radio and musical recording. The Grand Splendid was meant to be the place where all these innovations took place in the same spot. It was not only a theatre, but also a cinema and, in 1923, the place where Radio Splendid broadcasted from. Around the time that the theatre was opened, famous tango singers like Carlos Gardel performed. However, in the early 1990s the theatre brought down its curtains and its destiny remained a mystery until 2000, the year when the theatre was re-opened as a bookshop. The bold move of transforming a theatre into a bookshop was made by El Ateneo, one of the biggest publishing companies in the country, who restored the original structure to let the classic architecture shine. Rapidly, El Ateneo Grand Splendid became recognized as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
Visiting El Ateneo Grand Splendid is like taking a glimpse into a nostalgic past, where Buenos Aires was known as ‘the Paris of Latin America’. The building is magnificent and all the details were perfectly preserved to amaze anyone who chooses to explore the store. It’s almost impossible to not daydream about life in the past century. The walls, frescoes and details of El Ateneo Grand Splendid are marks of Argentina’s history. Where once were the box offices and seats, are now bookshelves and tables filled with a wide range of books. This place is ideal to buy your copy of classic Latin American authors like Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Marquez. The opulence of the bookstore is striking and the architecture is a piece of art on its own. Its eclectic architectural style is a combination of Greek design, seen in the marquee, and Romanticism, which is noticeable in the interior. The elaborate sculptures, golden details, thousands of lamps and the ceiling are unique and dramatic features that make El Ateneo Grand Splendid so marvelous.
While visiting the store, it’s impossible not to stare at the impressive dome, painted by Nazareno Orlandi, which is a representation of Peace in celebration of the ending of the First World War. This piece is filled with figures that represent different cultures and historic times. Additionally, there are representations of cinema, arts and culture which celebrate the times of progress and plenty that were to come after the war. The warm colors of this piece and of the whole bookshop, make it ideal to spend the entire afternoon browsing the shelves.
It’s easy to lose track of time when the atmosphere is so relaxed. The store is filled with comfy sofas, meant to be used by its visitors, who might spend hours and hours choosing the perfect book before buying it. The cabins were even transformed into cozy rooms with sofas and chairs to enjoy reading. El Ateneo Grand Splendid sometimes looks more like a library than a shop, and the visitors seem to be more like spectators of a show starring the books and the theatre.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid is an example of the past and the present existing side by side. The bookshop combines the best of both worlds. Along the four floors different genres coexist, in the basement there is a large collection of CDs and a part dedicated to children's literature with shelves carrying more than 120.000 titles. The third floor occasionally hosts artworks, displayed as an art gallery. Every part of El Ateneo Grand Splendid is impregnated with culture— even the coffee shop situated on the stage of the theatre. There, you can catch an amazing view of El Ateneo Grand Splendid while having a coffee or lemonade with a great selection of cakes and other pastries. Inside the coffee shop you can see the structure of the stage and the big red curtain which remains in excellent condition after all the years that it was used to open shows and performances.
Visiting El Ateneo Grand Splendid is, indeed, a splendid experience that every tourist should have in Buenos Aires. Visited by 3,000 people per day, the bookshop is one of the many jewels of the city whose visit guarantees incredible memories and, also, excellent additions to your library. The bookshop is located on Santa Fe Avenue 1860 and is open all the days of the week.