BUENOS AIRES, May 19 — What does one do after reading a book, particularly a really good one?
Sharing is caring as one of my favourite auteurs, the Argentinian director Marco Berger, would attest.
The maestro behind acclaimed films such as Ausente (2011) and Un Rubio (2019) often posts pictures of books he has read such as Un Campeon Desparejo by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Seda by Alessandro Baricco on his Instagram.
This should come as no surprise when you realise that Argentina is a highly literate country, thanks in part to its rich history of European immigrants.
They had brought with them a great love of books, deeply embedded in their old culture which then became part of their new one.
What’s more, according to a 2015 study by the World Cities Culture Forum, the country’s capital Buenos Aires has more bookstores per person than any other city in the world — almost 25 shops for every 100,000 inhabitants!
Even with more than 700 bookstores spread across the city, however, one stands above the rest.
Named the “world’s most beautiful bookstore” by National Geographic, El Ateneo Grand Splendid has made Buenos Aires a must-visit for bibliophiles everywhere. But is it truly deserving of its fame?
We head to Santa Fe Avenue in the fashionable Barrio Norte neighbourhood, where the eclecticist building originally by architects Peró and Torres Armengol still stands today.
Designed for impresario Max Glücksmann, El Ateneo Grand Splendid first opened as a theatre called Teatro Gran Splendid in May 1919. It was only later converted into a bookstore by the Grupo Ilhsa in 2000.
Outside, the former theatre looks like any other bookstore. Streams of pedestrians stroll past, hurrying on their way without a second glance.
Aside from a discreet marble plaque commemorating the 10th anniversary of El Ateneo Grand Splendid’s transformation into a bookstore, nothing seems out of the ordinary.
But for those in the know, there is a sense of reverence to finally arriving at this temple to books. Take your time to gather yourself and take a deep breath before entering the century-old space.
Once inside, we are greeted by... well, books, of course. Shelves and shelves of them, in tidy rows stretching over 2,000 square metres.
Argentines are prodigious readers; tens of thousands of titles are published in the country annually. Walk further in, and the real dimensions of the store is revealed, like a scene from a dream.
Warm and welcoming, the soft auditorium lighting bestows a fairytale glow to the interior. From the graceful lines of rounded balconies to ornate carvings and trimmings everywhere we turn, there is a built-in sense of drama.
There are many people here, customers and curious onlookers both, but there is also a serene hush, as though we are in a most majestic library.
At the far end, plush crimson curtains beautifully preserve the former stage (now a café). It’s an elegant reminder of the building’s former existence as a theatre.
With a seating capacity of 1,050, the Teatro Grand Splendid saw some of the greatest tango legends performing on its stage, including Carlos Gardel, Francisco Canaro, Roberto Firpo and Ignacio Corsini.
Later in the 1920s, the theatre took on a new life as a cinema where the first films with sound in Argentina were shown.
Today, what used to be luxury boxes are now discreet corners where readers can hide away and slip into adventures between the pages of a book.
Don’t forget to look above at the magnificent painted ceiling. The angelic frescoes are a masterpiece by the Italian artist Nazareno Orlandi and create a sense of worshipping in a cathedral.
Elsewhere, caryatids sculpted by Troiano Troiani dominate; his handiwork can also be found along the Palacio de la Legislatura de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires.
No other bookstore quite conjures such a vision of heaven and earth.
Many visitors can’t help but pause for selfies. Unlike other inadvertent tourist attractions, the staff here welcome the attention paid to their place of work; some would even suggest the best spots for a photograph, such as the glorious view of the entire space from the upper balcony. (They only stop short of helping to take your picture — this isn’t in their job description after all.)
There are books for everyone, young and old alike. While most of the titles are in Spanish, there are always offerings in English.
But why come to Argentina only to purchase a book you could easily find back home? Consider something an Argentine would read, perhaps a graphic novel in Spanish that a friend who is beginning to pick up the language might appreciate.
It’s hard to imagine but just prior to its redevelopment as a bookstore, El Ateneo Grand Splendid was nearly demolished when the economy was doing poorly.
Today over a million people walk through its doors every year. Hundreds of thousands of books are sold annually here so it’s no mere tourist attraction.
No, the most beautiful bookstore in the world is where you make a pilgrimage as a bibliophile. It’s a place where you find a book that moves you so much you’d share it on your Instagram immediately after reading it.
It’s where you discover your love for the written word all over again.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid
Av. Santa Fe 1860, C1123 CABA, Argentina
Open Mon-Thu 9am-10pm, Fri-Sat 9am-12am, Sun 12pm-10pm
Phone: +54 11 4813-6052