Interior view of El Ateneo bookshop

Urban Renewal in Buenos Aires: El Ateneo bookshop

In Buenos Aires, there’s a wonderful bookshop on Avenida Santa Fé called El Ateneo.  Once noted by The Guardian as the second-most beautiful bookshop in the world (Thanks Wiki!), it’s not difficult to see why.

I spent a delightful afternoon there taking my sweet time wondering who would be the first Argentine / South American author I would read (Ernesto Sabato’s El Túnel won).  To decide, I enlisted the help of a passing Argentine man of advanced years, and Carlos, the charming Venezuelan sales assistant working part time while finishing his thesis.  The rest of my time was spent writing, drinking coffee and looking around in plain gobsmacked awe at the place.

What makes El Ateneo one of the best bookshops in Buenos Aires, if not the world, is not the fact that passing distinguished gentlemen are ready to help with your literary education: But the fact that it’s situated in an old, abandoned theatre.

Interior of El Ateneo, Buenos Aires
An interior view of El Ateneo. (
Thanks to for the picture)

I remember being introduced to the term “urban renewal” in Year 9 by the very memorable Miss Beilby and taken a trip around the Woolstores out in Brisbane’s Teneriffe.  A once mildly dodgy portside area, Teneiffe now boasts some of the city’s most expensive and desired housing: not least because of the creativity at work in having converting old warehouses and dockside buildings into loft-like living for people of my age who have nice cars and put their savings into real estate rather than travel.  My 14-year-old brain didn’t much care for the term; but its updated version 13 years later is certainly making up for it.

The Grand Splendid was opened in 1919, a project initiated by the Austrian businessman Mordechai David Glucksman, and housed some of the most acclaimed tango dancers of the time.  What spurred its demise, Wikipedia wasn’t nice enough to tell me:  But I like to think that in true early 20th Century fashion, it was a combination of unrequited love, new money, gin, tonic and syphilis.

In any case, it’s now no longer possible to go there to see tango dancers showing us the vertical representation of a horizontal desire, but happily, it is easy to while away hours under the building’s domed ceiling; curled up in an old balcony reading; drinking coffee at the café on the stage floor or simply wandering through the rows and rows of books on the five levels open to the public.

Interior view of El Ateneo bookshop
(Thanks to for the picture)

The conversion of the shell left by syphilis-stricken Glucksman’s The Grand Splendid (this is, of course, my own fanciful conjecture) into a thriving bookshop is nothing short of wonderful…and more than worth the $3,000,000 Argentine peso investment, I’m sure.

When I see examples of urban renewal like this, I wish I had a rather large warehouse full of spare cash myself to invest in the beautification of seveal other buildings I’ve seen.

I’d start by going back in time and preventing Brisbane’s “knowledgeable” who-knows-who from deciding that it was a great idea to pull down Festival Hall (a music venue where the strains of such geniuses as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, The Bee Gees, Nirvana and The Ramones once played).

How about a bookshop, anyone?  Record store?  Restaurant?  School of arts?  Anything at all?

The possibilities are endless.  As per usual, it’s a question of who’s got the dough to make it happen.


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