17th May 2012
Battle of the Bookshops: The El Ateneo in Buenos Aires
On Sante Fe Avenue in Buenos Aires, there sits a beautiful storefront. With its old world architecture, original 1920’s signage, and huge plate glass windows, the El Ateneo bookstore in Argentina is a tempting invitation even from the outside.
If you happened to allow yourself to be seduced by its strangely warm glow, its promise of a tastefully shabby Shakespeare volume or a Che Guevara biography, you would soon realise that the El Ateneo is so much more than it first appears.
The bookstore to end all bookstores, the majestic and stunningly beautiful El Ateneo is actually a converted theatre. Make it past the sleekly elegant foyer and you’re in for a real treat.
Exquisite 1920s frescos line the domed ceiling, rows and rows of books sit invitingly in the centre of a single, massive atrium; even the theatres original stage still exists, with its heavy, red brocade curtain.
The El Ateneo Grand Splendid once housed the greats of Argentine music, dance, theatre and cinema. Built in 1919 by legendary film pioneer Max Glucksman, the theatre gave the country its first ever ‘talkie.’
Since then, the El Ateneo has been both radio station and recording company, yet nothing has quite justified its breathtaking surroundings as this latest, literary incarnation.
Where else could you retire to a 1920s theatre box in order to read your brand new book? Velvety booths filled with cushions and high backed chairs, the El Ateneo’s private reading ‘rooms’ must surely rank amongst the world’s greatest reading locations.
‘And what if I feel peckish after all of this literature loving?’ I hear you cry. Never fear, bookworms. Hidden behind the El Ateneo’s magnificent red curtain is a fully stocked and truly wonderful little cafe, serving everything from the obligatory coffees and teas, to pastries, sandwiches and even full (very fancy) lunches.
For foreign visitors, El Ateneo’s appeal is most definitely its unique location and appearance. Whilst the shop itself does boast a large literary collection, only a small amount of this is in the English language. In spite of this, a wide range of canonical ‘classics’ are indeed available.
From Shakespeare to Brontë, and from Dickens to Cervantes, a British visitor would find a largely traditional collection, but certainly not go away empty-handed.
And, just in case you fancy something a little different, the El Ateneo houses three more floors of unmissable cultural gems. The bookstore’s second floor is entirely dedicated to scientific literature, but does provide very comfortable and very secluded reading area’s so that at least the feet can kick back whilst the brain does all of the work.
The El Ateneo’s third floor houses a large selection of Argentine and international movies, and last but not least; its basement is home to both a junior literature section and an impressive local and international music collection.
All four floors are dotted with characteristically worn armchairs and wonderfully plump cushions, the better to ensure that that quick thirty minute visit turns into an hour, or two, or three.
Not only is the El Ateneo very, very beautiful to look at, to wander round, and to relax in; it is also a little piece of South American history.
Buying a book at the Grand Splendid is so much more than simply buying a book; it is an architectural, historical and artistic experience.
The only problem is, once you’ve browsed lovingly through the shelves at the El Ateneo, it’s difficult to imagine that books should be encountered in any other way. So visit at your peril. You might just fall in love with it.
Guest Post from Samantha Hames