Leisure & Culture #67

Meet the most beautiful bookstore of South America in Argentina

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

Written by: 顯影 PhotogStory
Translated by: Joel Wong
Photo: 顯影 PhotogStory, House of Books, Liam Quinn

The saying "decline of print books" has been lingering over the years. In the digital age, even though people's reading habits have been transitioning, physical books have never been the past tense, but never lack voracious supporters. Content is certainly the main course for the sake of promoting print edition and reading in general. However, a beautifully designed bookstore or library also has its pivotal significance.

Articles on "the most beautiful library" or "10 most distinctive bookstores" are often circulated on the Internet. In fact, there are far more than that count in heaven for book lovers? French photographer Franck Bohbot has always been known for his typological photography techniques. He has photographed buildings with similar functionalities around the world for many years. For example, starting in 2011, he launched a photography project called the "House of Books". From Paris as his starting point, he set foot in different cities worldwide, such as Rome, New York, Tokyo, and photographed historic and modern libraries.

Through the lens of Franck Bohbot, libraries worldwide become images enveloped with magnificence and retro centric beauty. Bohbot usually shoots when the library is closed. There are no readers presented inside each frame, but the endless bookshelves and the open spaces provide viewers with unparalleled imagination. Such a clean and neat image makes people focusing on the magnificent decoration of the library itself. Bohbot records the world of books with a poetic eye, capturing different libraries' uniqueness with coherence and showing the world the library's grandeur and charm. Without a doubt, his works have contributed to the promotion of reading to the public.

Although I do not have a grand photography plan like Franck Bohbot, but when I set foot in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires a few years ago, I also visited the El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which claimed to be the most beautiful bookstore in South America. The Chinese Language media refers to El Ateneo as the “Athenian Bookstore” is actually a bookstore chain with branches in many cities in Argentina and several in the capital alone. The flagship store in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires is probably the most well-known location. Originally the Teatro Grand Splendid, a historic opera house completed in 1919, it was soon changed to a movie theater, and it is reported that Argentina’s first movie with sound was shown here in 1929.

Argentina is considered the most Europeanized country in South America, and its citizens also have good reading habits. Buenos Aires has a population of less than 3 million, but there are more than 700 bookstores in total, which is equivalent to 25 bookstores per 100,000 of populations ranking 1st in the world. Argentines have a vibrant reading atmosphere. When Teatro Grand Splendid ceased business in 2000, the original site was renovated into a bookstore – the seats of the opera house were converted into bookshelves, the stage became a cafe, and the original dome fresco and gorgeous decoration were all retained. The bookstore inherits the name of Grand Splendid, and being in it is like being in an opera house.

The entire bookstore covers an area of over 20,000 square feet with a total of five floors. The ground floor is the children's book department. The first and second floors are mainly books in Spanish of different categories. The third floor is a music area mainly selling classical and jazz vinyl records. The most eye-catchy decoration of this bookstore must be the dome fresco, which originally belonged to an opera house. Painted by Italian artist Nazareno Orlandi in 1919 shortly after the end of WWI, the murals portrayed angels and fairies living in peace and restoring order that full of epochal significance.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid's long history and magnificent decorations attract more than one million people to visit each year, as well as selling more than 700,000 books alongside. In 2008, it was named the world's 10 most beautiful bookstores by The Guardian. And in 2019, it reached new heights and was named the world's most beautiful bookstore by National Geographic. I believe that more people are attracted to visit El Ateneo Grand Splendid by such a compliment.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

1860 Ave. Santa Fe Buenos Aires Argentina
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