A Bookstore with a Story to Tell

Tucked away in alleys and hidden from the hustle and bustle, little bookstores are discovered every day by the wandering feet of readers all over the world. They are discreet and charming, little nooks of respite within cities for those who find comfort and adventure within the pages of books. While not always easy to find, part of the magic can be the discovery itself when one stumbles across such a little bookshop. 

And then there are the bookshops that call to readers, standing like beacons in the middle of cities, drawing thousands to their doors daily and welcoming them into a uniquely stunning, charming atmosphere readers might not expect from a bookstore so large. One such bookstore is El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

The striking, elegant building that houses El Ateneo Grand Splendid was originally built as a theater in 1903. After being bought by Austrian businessman and impresario Max Glücksmann, the theater, then known as the Teatro Nacional, was renovated and expanded. Designed by architects Pero and Torres Armengol and inspired by 19th-century Parisian architecture, the stunning theatre, renamed Teatro Gran Splendid—The Splendid Theater, featured a myriad of incredible design features that added an undeniable sense of style, elegance, and grandeur. Such features included ceiling frescoes painted by Italian artist Nazareno Orlandi, ornate carvings, caryatids (sculptures of female figures that take the place of columns to serve as supports), and sweeping crimson curtains framing the stage. 

Teatro Grand Splendid opened in 1919 and quickly became a pillar of Buenos Aires culture, showcasing ballet, opera, and tango performances by some of Argentina’s most well known dancers. Glücksmann, in addition to owning and operating the theater, was one of the biggest figures within the Argentinian music industry, virtually controlling the tango scene. He eventually made Teatro Grand Splendid the base of his record label, El Nacional Odeon. Live tango performances were recorded there, with some tango legends including Francisco Canaro, Roberto Firpo, and Carlos Gardel having recorded at the theater. Glückmann’s radio station, Radio Splendid, was also housed in the upper floors and broadcast from the theater beginning in 1924. 

The late 20s saw a change in the Teatro Grand Splendid—it was to become a cinema. It first showed silent films, accompanied by live tango orchestras at Glückmann’s direction, and eventually showed the first ever sound film seen in Argentina in 1929. Its last screening was in 1991, before the poor economy forced its closure. Sadly, this stunning, historically and culturally important building fell into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition. 

Adolfo de Vincenzi, a local businessman, was a patron of the cinema before its closure, enjoying its refuge during his days as a student whenever he could take a break from his classes nearby. He said of the cinema: “Every time I finished with my exams, I said, ‘That’s my vacation and I came here.’ ” Upon learning Teatro Grand Splendid was slated for demolition, de Vincenzi moved to acquire the building with his company El Ateneo. 

El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Photo by: Ted McGrath

El Ateneo has long been a literary presence within Argentina. The business began in 1912 as a publishing house that brought translated classics such as Shakespeare, Homer, Machiavelli and more to Argentinian readers with its first catalogue. In 1968, El Ateneo launched a series of lectures and author signings, called “The Spring of Letters,” that eventually became the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, one of the top five largest book expos in the world, held each April. El Ateneo is now part of Yenny-El Ateneo, a chain of bookstores across Argentina owned by a larger company. 

Through de Vincenzi’s interest, Yenny-El Ateneo’s parent company leased the theater and restored it to its former glory while making the changes necessary for a bookstore. Bookshelves replaced rows of seating, but the gilded Old World beauty of the original theater is still at the forefront of El Ateneo Grand Splendid. The beautiful carvings and the stunning ceiling frescoes remain, as do the opera boxes that now serve as private, cozy reading nooks for patrons. The sweeping curtains still frame the stage, which now is home to a café where patrons can enjoy a coffee and live musicians that play there often, something of an ode to the original theater’s history. 

The bookstore, while a fantastically popular attraction for tourists, offers mostly books in Spanish, with a small selection of (mostly romance and mystery) novels in English. The bottom floor is dedicated to children’s books. 

With over 730 bookstores (the most per capita of any city in the world), Buenos Aires has been called “the bookstore capital of the world.” Even among so many other bookshops, El Ateneo Grand Splendid stands out in a way that very few bookstores anywhere in the world could match. It’s classical and elegant, dramatic and luxurious. If the absolutely enchanting beauty of this bookstore was not enough to garner the attention of readers around the world, its history surely would be. A cultural beacon since its inception in 1903, this building has provided for its community, by showcasing and encouraging the arts and so reflecting the passions of Buenos Aires through the ages. Its impact continues to be felt today in its incarnation as El Ateneo Grand Splendid. G&

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