This summer, I traveled south to Buenos Aires for the winter to escape the New York City heat. Top of the “to visit” list is a place that will remain an all time favorite travel destination: El Ateneo. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is the biggest bookstore in South America and is celebrating one hundred years of existence this year. Until 2000, the building was home to Buenos Aires’ entertainment and cultural productions as The Grand Splendid Theater. The physical transformation from a theater to a book store maintained the original structure and the building’s contribution to Argentine history.
The bookstore is impressive and immediately upon entering I understood why locals rave about El Ateneo Grand Splendid as “algo muy especial” (“something very special” ). Each space in the bookstore is carefully utilized: previous theatre boxes are cozy reading spaces, mezzaine kiosks are information booths and the main stage is the the Impresso Café Bar, a reasonably priced coffee shop. In January 2008, The Guardian published a ranking the top 10 bookstores around the world. El Ateneo Grand Splendid earned second place. The top of the coveted list includes the Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht, the Netherlands (first place), Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal (third place), Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, USA (fourth place) and the since closed Borders in Glasgow, Scotland (fifth place).
Inaugurated in May 1919, the building was designed by architects Pero and Torres Armengol with 4 rows of stageboxes and seating for 500 people. Like much of the architecture in Buenos Aires, it was inspired by 19th century Parisian architecture, in this case probably the Palais Garnier Opera House. Since 1924, tango concerts were recorded in The Grand Splendid under the seal El Nacional Odeon. The stage also housed theater and ballet companies including Cuba’s Alicia Alonoso’s and the first non-silent movie in Buenos Aires The Divine Lady starring Corinne Griffith and Victor Varconi. The ILHSA group rented The Grand Splendid in February 2000 and the subsequent renovation maintained the original beauty of the facility. The one million visitors a year El Ateneo receives is a testament to the public’s appreciation of the bookstore being a cultural staple in the community.
If you are planning a trip to Buenos Aires, be sure to visit El Ateneo. It is the only place I know where you can enjoy a cup of coffee on a stage while looking out into the main attraction.
Get in touch with the author at @untappedalley.