At first glance there seems to be something terribly out of place in this unusual, but undoubtedly, magnificent room. Like a layer cake, rows of elegant galleries supported by Corinthian columns and decorated by gilt-painted friezes surround a central oval-shaped space, and everything is filled with…books? This place, called El Ateneo and located in Buenos Aires, would easily rival some of the most beautiful libraries in the world (like this one or this one). But all of these books are for sale. El Ateneo is one of the most unusual bookstores in the world.
Since a glance at your local Borders (do they still have those anymore?) or B. Dalton will show you that nobody sets out to build bookstores this magnificent, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that El Ateneo began its existence, in 1919, as a theater. It was called the Teatro Grand Splendid and it was built for Austrian-born impresario Max Glücksmann, who immigrated to Argentina in the 1890s and is largely responsible for why we think of Buenos Aires as the “home” of the tango. For decades the Teatro Grand Splendid hosted operas, symphonies and films, but then began to wane in the latter half of the 20th century. By the year 2000 it was something of a white elephant despite its colorful history and architectural significance. A company called El Ateneo rode to the rescue, remodeling the theater and turning it into this, one of the most magnificent bookstores on the planet.
In contrast to the many sad stories of architectural treasures lost that I’ll be telling in my Lost America series, I thought it might be nice to have a happy ending for a change. El Ateneo is quite successful, welcoming over a million visitors every year. I would never have thought of turning an old theater into a bookstore, but in this case the gamble seems to have paid off, er, handsomely.