Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When History Collides With The Present – El Ateneo Bookstore

Photo by Stanley Wood
One of the fun parts about writing fiction set in exotic locales is the opportunity to incorporate historical sites into the story. The current book I’m working on, a mystery set in Argentina, has afforded me the chance to set a major turning point for the plot and characters in one of my favourite places in Buenos Aires, an old theatre that is now a thriving bookstore.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, situated in Barrio Norte, once was the Teatro Grand Splendid. The theatre opened in May 1919 and with a seating capacity of 1,050 patrons, the venue hosted a variety of concerts, including some of Argentina’s most renowned tango artists – Carlos Gardel, Robert Firpo, and Ignacio Corsini.

The building was the brainchild of Max Glücksmann, who originally came from the Austrian Empire and immigrated to Argentina in 1890. In 1914 he founded Nacional Odeon, a record company that helped put the tango on the world stage. His empire expanded to include exclusive copyright to all the hits his record company produced, as well as controlling sheet music and the silent movie-house business. He could easily have been despised by performers, but instead, they admired him after he introduced the royalty pay system in Argentina.

With the money and reputation behind him, Glücksmann commissioned the construction of Teatro Grand Splendid. In 1924, Radio Splendid, another business of Glücksmann’s, broadcast from the building and made recordings for his studio label. The theatre became a cinema in the late 1920s, and was the first place Argentines could watch movies with recorded sound.

Carlos Gardel -- one of the first performers at the theatre
Teatro Grand Splendid continued to screen movies right up until the year 2000, when Grupo Ilhsa, which owned a publishing house and other bookstores, leased the theatre to convert into a bookstore and music shop. Where the theatre seats once stood, there are now rows upon rows of bookshelves. The stage that hosted some of Argentina’s greatest talents now serves as a café, allowing patrons to relax with a hot cuppa and take their time perusing books of their choice. Reading before purchase is encouraged. And if you’re a person who needs peace and quiet to read, find one of the many sofas tucked away in the balconies that overlook the stage. In the afternoons, a pianist plays and that’s when you can also appreciate the theatre’s wonderful acoustics.

Despite the renovations, El Ateneo has managed to retain the ambience of an elegant theatre. The central dome is well preserved and shows off the magnificent fresco painting by Nazareno Orlandi, celebrating the end of the First World War. All the ornate carvings, frescos, curtains, and lighting remain true to the original building and its intended use.

Frequently named as one of the world’s best bookshops, El Ateneo deserves every accolade it receives. With over 120,000 book titles, a million people walking through its doors every year, and more than 700,000 books sold annually, this bookshop hasn’t lost any of its charm and is a welcome contrast to the “big box” bookstores you’ll find in other parts of the world.

If you don’t speak Spanish, fear not. The store has a wonderful selection of fiction and non-fiction books in a myriad of languages, including English. And if you’re after souvenirs, then the photography books and wide selection of Argentine music, including pop and tango, will have you lugging one very heavy bag back to your hotel.

Any modern renovation of an historic building is a great risk. Managing to find the line between past and present is a delicate balance, but the very savvy architects and designers who worked on El Ateneo Grand Splendid deserve a very big pat on the back. It’s not very often a bookstore becomes a tourist attraction, but El Ateneo Grand Splendid will go down in history as the bookstore that seamlessly combines old-world elegance with a modern twist.

Photo by David


  1. What an amazing bookstore, Alli! This alone is worth a trip to Buenos Aires. Though you'd need lots and lots of time, not just for browsing the shelves but also admiring the elegant building it's in!

  2. I can imagine entering this bookstore and not emerging for months if only food and drink were available. What a sensory delight. If I ever go to Buenos Aires, I know I'll spend time there. Thanks for a look at a fabulous place.

  3. That's a bookstore I definitely need to visit!

  4. Oh, yes, Edith!

    Patricia, it's very difficult to leave once you've immersed yourself in this little piece of heaven!

    Heidi, I am 100% backing you up on the "must go there" trip!

  5. Surely one of the most incredible bookstores on the planet. I think what we need a Novel Adventurers field trip? Who's up for finding us a sponsor? Alli, I think it's gonna have to be you... for your book, of course.

  6. I've just found a site with photos of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world. There are some lovely interior shots of El Ateneo. http://flavorwire.com/254434/the-20-most-beautiful-bookstores-in-the-world/10#7

  7. It's definitely spectacular! Been there in March...so gorgeous! You must go check it out if you visit BA.