Inside ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstore’ In Argentina

National Geographic has named El Ateneo Grand Splendid the top shop in the world. But that’s only where the history of the 100-year-old Buenos Aires building, once a palatial theater, begins.

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

Impresario Max Glücksmann wanted his new theater, the Teatro Gran Splendid, to remind people of the Paris Opera. He had it built in 1919 with three ornately decorated balconies hugging the back wall of a 1,050-seat auditorium. It's decked out with gilded statues, marble columns and a ceiling mural celebrating the end of World War I. In the days before air conditioning, the domed roof opened in good weather to give theater audiences a glimpse of the stars.

It is a spectacular space. After a $3 million renovation, it's no less grand than at any time in the decades since it was built.

There is one difference today. Where once the vast auditorium was filled with rows of theater seats, it now has rows of bookshelves. The Gran Splendid has been converted into what is quite possibly the most spectacular bookstore on earth.