El Ateneo Grand Splendid is one of the most beautiful bookstores in South America, if not the world. Located in Buenos Aires, at 1860 Santa Fe Avenue in Barrio Norte, the building was designed by Pero and Torres Armengol. Originally it housed the theater Teatro Grand Splendid, and in the 1920s it was converted into a movie theater.
The building features frescoes painted in celebration of the ending of WWI by Nazareno Orlandi and sculptures by the famous Troiano Troiani. The one time seating area for 1,050 people today contains 120,000 books. In its time, many exciting performances have been held, with some of the most popular shows performed by the tango musicians Carlos Gardel, Ignacio Corsini, and Roberto Firpo.
The building was designed for the Argentine pioneer of film and music industries, Max Glücksmann. Glücksmann’s Radio Splendid station began broadcasting here in 1924, and he recorded some of the first great tango singers and musicians of the day, such as Lola Membrives and Francisco Canaro. In 1922, one of the artists who worked with Glücksmann, Enrique Delfino, composed a piano piece called “Grand Splendid,” which he dedicated to the theater.
Nine years after the theater was converted into a cinema, it presented the first films with sound in the country and was a popular draw for film lovers. For a short time, the cinema was converted back into a theater in the early 1970s, with actress Mirtha Legrand starring in a stage performance in 1973. Then it resumed with films.
The last film that was shown before its closing was American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes. In 1991, because of the poor economy, the cinema was closed, but it was saved from demolition when the Ateneo publishing house stepped in and bought the building.
Following a $3 million restoration, Grand Splendid reopened in 2000 as a beautiful bookshop. The Ilhsa Group, which owns the Ateneo publishing house, hired architect Fernando Manzone for the renovation. He removed the sitting area and installed the present bookshelves, keeping the plush stage curtains in place to frame what now serves as the store’s coffee house. The El Ateneo Grand Splendid is now the number-one store of the Ilhsa Group and in 2007 sold more than 600,000 books.
Most of the original interior, including the frescoes, balconies, and the lighting of the auditorium, was retained.
In the afternoons, a pianist performs on stage by the coffee shop. Because of the fabulous acoustics of the building, the music can be heard throughout the store. The still-intact theater boxes are furnished with comfortable chairs so customers can comfortably read books.
There are more than 3,000 visitors daily who come to this glorious book temple to select their favorite titles, or take pictures of the bookstore. According to Wander-Argentina, in 2008 Britain’s Guardian newspaper named El Ateneo as the second most beautiful bookstore in the world, the first one being Holland’s Boekhandel Selexys Dominicanen, which is set in an 800-year-old church.
On the first floor psychological and medical books can be found; also popular are sections for Argentine culture and Latin American art. A selection of classical, jazz, and popular music CDs is offered in the basement and on the second floor.
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There are more than 4,000 non-Spanish titles here, but the English-language section is relatively small. Grand Splendid is one of 40 El Ateneo chain bookstores. It is the most famous in Buenos Aires and houses the largest collection of Spanish books in the country.