This a story about a bookstore. But this isn’t just any bookstore.
No, this place is borderline magical. If it sounds like a fairytale, it’s only because it resembles one. (Looking at you, Belle.)
It’s called El Ateneo Grand Splendid and you’ll find it Buenos Aires, Argentina.
From the outside, it’s a large but otherwise unassuming bookstore in the heart of the Barrio Norte neighborhood.
But step inside, and you’re met with breathtaking views of fresco ceilings, opulent plush curtains, soaring balconies, and all the trimmings that make this a store unlike any other.
Oh, and you’ll also find 21,000 square feet of books on books on books. And a few more books for good measure.
Even the beautiful building’s backstory deserves a place among the shelves.
Built in 1919, the original building (then known as Teatro Grand Splendid) served as a premiere performance space for the region’s top tango talent. Dancers like Roberto Firpo and Francisco Canaro once graced the stage, dazzling audiences with the help of live musical accompaniment.
As the popularity of live dance waned, the building was transformed to a movie theater in 1929, making it the first cinema in Buenos Aires to show sound films.
Popularity and use of the cinema ebbed and flowed, though. And by the turn of the 21st century, the Grand Splendid was in dire straits.
The building and its beautiful fixtures and trimmings were slated for demolition. But in the knick of time, popular Argentine bookseller Grupo Ilhsa leased the building and transformed the space into its flagship location of their Ateneo chain, keeping the historical integrity and spirit of the esteemed performance space intact.
Nearly 100 years after opening, El Ateneo Grand Splendid welcomes more than 1 million visitors each year.
Locals and tourists of all ages come to see the spellbinding space.
It’s filled with books and music you might find at a typical chain bookstore with most of the titles in Spanish.
Many cozy up with a good book in one of the former theater boxes.
Or get some work done amid the frescos. (Good luck going back to a coffee shop after this.)
Speaking of coffee, if you need a bite to eat, look no farther than the theater’s former stage. It’s now a cafe.
Some visit the store with no agenda at all. It’s the perfect place to rest, relax, and take it all in.
Argentina’s love affair with books isn’t limited to El Ateneo Grand Splendid, either.
Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita (nearly 25 per 100,000 residents) than any other city in the world. Books are exempt from Argentina’s 21% sales tax, and popular book sites like Amazon don’t do business in the country, making brick-and-mortar bookstores an important part of the community.
“Culture is very important to the people of Buenos Aires,” Antonio Dalto, business manager for El Ateneo told The Guardian. “Even young kids read books, we see them here every day. Books for teenagers are one of our biggest sellers.”
Bookstores and libraries have the power to take you on journeys you never imagined.
Back in time, deep in space, through history and faraway places, reading brings new ideas and concepts to life. That’s why it’s so important to celebrate literacy, the written word, and the magnificent spaces that stoke our imaginations.