El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore in Buenos Aires
El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore in Buenos Aires is located in an old theater and features bookshelves galore, three levels of balconies and box seats. (Susan Miles Gulbransen / Noozhawk photo)

When visiting Buenos Aires last November, my husband, Gary, and I walked through the Recoleta neighborhood looking for a cup of coffee. We soon passed one of the city’s most extraordinary stores, El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore, and stepped inside. Talk about a dream combo of my two favorite resources — an old theater and a large, active bookstore, one of the most famous in the world.

Once in the ample lobby, bookshelves greet you with more up the side stairs on three levels of balconies and box seats. Straight ahead is the auditorium and stage, all crammed with more shelves of books, mostly in Spanish.

On the right wall of the lobby, two sizable floor-to-ceiling shelves have the books in English. The first ones that caught our attention at eye level were five of Santa Barbara author Sue Grafton’s mysteries, X (A Kinsey Millhone Novel). Three days later, we went back and one was gone, assumingly sold.

The size of the auditorium, with its levels of balconies and box seats, struck me as a good example of a Victorian theater. More stairs led down to another large space under the auditorium, adding more square footage totaling 21,000 square feet.

Built in 1919, Teatro Grand Splendid held a variety of live performances, especially tangos, a major dance art in Argentina. It held 1,050 seats, two-thirds of our current Granada Theatre’s seating. Ten years later, Teatro was made into a cinema theater showing the first sound movies in Argentina in 1929.

By the end of the 20th century, it was going under. The corporation Grupo Ilsa leased it in 2000 and created El Ateneo Grand Splendid, one of its 40 bookstores. It became its flagship store.

Instead of rows with deep red velvety theater seats filling the auditorium, books were everywhere with music material at the top balcony. A friendly store employee told me that about 7,000 people come in per week, and the store holds about 200,000 books. It sells hundreds of thousands of books per year — 700,000 in 2007. While the numbers dropped in 2016-17, he said that they were rising again this past year.

The theater met my expectations with its beauty. Fresco paintings by an Italian artist decorate the high ceiling of the auditorium. The balconies, door and arch frames, areas around the boxes and the large stage frame were originally decorated with carvings, some of foliage and flowers, some of angels and people, and some emphasizing curves of the theater’s design. The room also has good, warm lighting.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore in Buenos Aires

Books by Santa Barbara author Sue Grafton sit on a shelf at El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore in Buenos Aires. (Susan Miles Gulbransen / Noozhawk photo)

The stage, now at floor level, serves as a coffee shop with a grand piano used for daily entertainment. People are encouraged to enjoy the bookstore as a reading spot with comfy chairs set up especially in the box seat areas. You can either bring your own book or buy a book you want.

Once back in our rented apartment, I Googled reading statistics in Argentina. My assumption was that our country has among the most readers, the largest publications industry and the greatest number of bookstores, even though digital print has modified our reading habits. Not necessarily so.

When it comes to reading time, Argentina rates 17th in the World Culture Score Index global study with an average of 5.54 reading hours per week. I had expected the United States would be among the top three. Instead, India (10.42), Thailand (9.24) and China (8.00) are listed there. The United States is No. 23 with an average of 5.42 hours.

In a study done by the World Cities Cultural Forum about cities with the most bookstores, Buenos Aires came in first with 25 bookstores per 100,000 residents or a total of 734 stores. Hong Kong was second with 22 stores per 100,000 people. Paris, London, Madrid and Moscow followed. The first U.S. city mentioned was down the list — New York City, offering 10 stores per 100,000 inhabitants, the same number as London.

What makes Argentina different from the United States and other countries?

Its history and culture have encouraged reading since the 19th century when European immigrants began to pour into Argentina. They introduced the popularity of books and newspapers.

About 85 percent of the 2.8 million residents in Buenos Aires today supposedly have some European DNA. When the city’s plan was laid out, Parisians helped create the streets and neighborhoods. The many wide streets lined with trees and buildings decorated with iron railings show similarities to Paris.

In some ways, Argentina’s history reflects similar histories throughout South America. An article in the British Guardian stated, “Their country has endured military dictatorship, economic collapse and a particularly vituperative brand of politics, so perhaps it is not surprising that Argentineans should still find solace in the oldest of pleasures: curling up with a good book.”

To make it even better for buyers, books are exempt from Argentina’s 21 percent sales tax. To add to books selling locally, Amazon and the Internet have limited sales because Argentina maintains strong restrictions of shipments into the country. This may change over time, but not yet.

Argentina also has among the top book publishers in Latin America, among them Grupa Ilsa’s El Ateneo Publishing operated by the owners of El Ateneo Grand Splendid. According to the Argentine Book Chamber in 2014, Argentinean publishers put 28,010 titles in circulation and 129 million books printed in the country. The people of Buenos Aires also have unusual daily lifestyle patterns. They wake up later than we do and stretch the day with dinnertime closer to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Many bookstores, as a result, stay open until midnight.

National Geographic named El Ateneo Grand Splendid the most beautiful bookstore in the world in this year’s top 10 international stores.

“Books represent us like the tango,” said Juan Pablo Marciani, the bookstore manager. “We have a culture very rooted in print.”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.