Buenos Aires is a city full of not-to-missed architectural attractions. Among them is South America’s most opulent bookstore, El Ateneo Grand Splendid. This book lover’s palace located in the old Grand Splendid Theater retains all the decadence of an Italian opera house and is the ideal place to revel in Buenos Aires’ celebrated literary tradition.
The amphitheater’s former 1,050-person seating area now contains El Ateneo’s 120,000 book titles. The beautiful central dome retains the original Romantic-style frescos by Italian, Nazareno Orlandi celebrating the end of the First World War.
The theater boxes are intact and are fitted with comfy chairs that invite visitors to lounge perusing book selections on a rainy afternoon.
The Splendid’s stage remains encased by thick burgundy curtains, and now serves as the bookstore’s pleasant but pricey café. A live pianist performs on stage in the afternoons and, thanks to the great acoustics, can be heard throughout the store.
The Grand Splendid Radio
Max Glücksmann, a pioneer in Argentina’s phonographic and film industry, constructed the 2000 sq. meter theater in 1919. The Jewish-Austrian immigrant arrived in Buenos Aires in 1890. Beginning with a humble AR$50 per month salary in a photography studio, he went on to create a huge musical and film legacy honoring his adopted country.
With the fortune he amassed in the first 20 years of his career he contracted two rather unknown architects, Peró and Torres Armengol to design a new theater in the neighborhood that was then known as ‘Saint Germain Porteño.’
In 1924 Glücksmann founded his own radio station, Radio Splendid in the upper offices of the building. He produced cutting edge recordings of the channel’s live programs and from there launched Discos Glücksmann, a record label that was responsible for spreading the sounds of tango legends such as Lola Membrives and Roberto Firpo throughout Europe. Enrique Delfino, another tango great who worked with Glücksmann, even authored a 1922 piano piece, ‘Grand Splendid,’ in honor of the theater.
By 1926 Glücksmann’s interest in the moving picture industry inspired him to convert the Grand Splendid into Buenos Aires’ most luxurious film house.
At first, the movie theater featured silent films accompanied by live tango orchestras. In 1929 the first moving picture with sound in Buenos Aires, a love story called ‘La Divina Dama‘ (The Divine Lady) debuted here in an event that drew Buenos Aires’ most fashionable citizens and paparazzi of the day.
In the early 1970’s Teatro Grand Splendid was once again briefly converted back into a theater. The last live performance in 1973 starred Mirtha Legrand, one of Argentina’s most enduring starlets. Legrand had a long relationship with the theater and Radio Splendid— in the 1940’s she and her sister, Silvia, co-hosted a radio show on the station, ‘El Club de Los Amigos’ (The Friendship Club).
The Birth of El Ateneo Gran Splendid
After the last curtain fell, the Grand Splendid was then converted back into a movie house until 1991. The last film was shown here was Sam Mendes’ ‘American Beauty.’ At the time, Argentina’s economy was suffering and the building was destined for the wrecking ball until the Ilhsa Group, owner of the Argentine Ateneo bookstore chain, saved the day.
At the end of 2000, after extensive restorations totaling AR$3 million, the theater was reopened as El Ateneo Grand Splendid. It quickly gained recognition as one of the world’s most majestic bookstores.
In 2008 Britain’s Guardian newspaper named El Ateneo as the second most beautiful bookstore in the world (first on the list is Holland’s, Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, set in an 800 year-old church).
National Geographic named El Ateneo the world’s most beautiful bookstore in 2019.
El Ateneo gives a nod to the Grand Splendid’s musical tradition with a decent selection of music at its flagship store. On the 2nd floor are classical and jazz music CD’s and in the basement a popular music section. The lateral hallways on the upper floors showcase black and white images of the Grand Splendid and the tango greats that performed here in its heyday, including Carlos Gardel, Francisco Canaro and Ignacio Corsini.
There are 4,000 non-Spanish titles here but the English language section of the store doesn’t offer much besides pulp fiction thrillers and romance novels.
A few English textbooks are also scattered throughout the store. Those looking for good English reading material for the road will find a better selection at some of the city’s other bookstores, such as Kel, Walrus Books and Libros del Pasaje.
El Ateneo is a chain with 40 locations throughout the country, but the Recoleta venue is the most visited with an average 3,000 people passing through daily to gawk at the stunning architecture.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid
1860 Sante Fe Avenue
•Hours: Mon-Fri 10am —7pm
Fri & Sat: 10 am —12am
Sun: 9 am—10 pm