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Inside the "World's Most Beautiful Bookstore" in Argentina: NPR



When the Gran Splendid Theater in Buenos Aires was transformed into a branch of the Ateneo bookstore, the scene became a café. It's just called "the world's most beautiful bookstore" by National Geographic .

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When the Gran Splendid Theater in Buenos Aires was transformed into a branch of the Ateneo bookstore, the scene became a cafe. It was just named "the world's most beautiful bookstore" by National Geographic .

Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

In its first edition of 2019, National Geographic named a store in Buenos Aires, Argentina "the world's most beautiful bookstore ." NPR was before the curve. Bob Mondello filed this report 18 years ago, just after the Teatro Gran Splendid was converted into El Ateneo Grand Splendid.

Impresario Max Glücksmann wanted his new theater, Teatro Gran Splendid, to remind people of the Paris Opera. He built it in 1919 with three ornately decorated balconies that hugged the back wall of a 1,050-seat hall. It is decorated with gilded statues, marble columns and a roof painting that celebrates the end of the First World War. In the days before air conditioning, the hilly roof opened in good weather to give the theater audience a glimpse of the stars.

It is a spectacular space. After a $ 3 million renovation, it is no less than ever during the decades since it was built.

There is a difference today. When the large auditorium was filled with rows of theater chairs, it now has rows of bookshelves. Gran Splendid has been transformed into what is perhaps the most spectacular bookstore on earth.

The transformation is Adolfo de Vincenzi's brainchild, who has loved this theater since his student days and still remembers films he saw here (one of them is "a movie by Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman, Sonata Otoñal [ Autumn Sonata ] ") when he could take a break from his accounting courses three blocks away.

"Every time I finished my exams, I said," It's my vacation, "de Vincenzi said." I came here. "

The theater that now houses the El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore had a hilly roof that opened.

Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images


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Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

The theater that now houses El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore had a hilly roof that opened.

Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

Gran Splendid was severely defeated when it was acquired by de Vincenzi's company El Ateneo, a bookstore chain similar to Barnes & Noble in Argentina. The theater had succumbed to the same trend against suburban multiplexes that made downtown movie palace outdated in the US. So when Vincenzi heard the lease was available and looked around at what happened to other theaters that once lined the nearby avenues, he says he had no other thoughts.

"We did not decide to end this building as a theater," they said. "Companies made it not profitable … so what we did is put a bookstore instead." He noted that two other cinemas, once located one block away, have now become parking spaces.

Since this special theater was an architectural treasure, the Ateneo chain had some problems first with the City Hall. But the resistance melted away when the public looked at the renovated Ateneo Grand Splendid – brighter, cleaner and with lots of activities to ensure it would still attract crowds.

New uses were found for almost every inch of the building. The wide scene that was always there behind the screen is now a lively cafe. The orchestra part and the first balcony are filled with bookshelves. And the box seats, when the most expensive in the house, have been equipped as private reading rooms with cushy armchairs and a great view.

The two top balconies, which look down on all this, have become a branch of an art gallery [note: closed in the years since this report] filled with colorful paintings and sculptures. And past the art, far above the dome behind a locked door, there is nothing public sees: the room where tango singer Carlos Gardel made some of his first recordings.