I’ve probably said it before, but I’ll say it again: Walking into a bookstore is bittersweet for me. Sweet because I love reading, I love seeing all the books and having all those options. Bookstores are my library with brand-new smells. I love settling down into a cozy corner with a book or two, and reading as much as I can before I leave/get kicked out. Then I place the book back on the shelf, and every time I come back to the bookstore, I pick up the book again and read from where I left off. It’s like having a familiar friend waiting for me.
It’s bitter because it makes me sad to think of all those authors who have poured heart and soul into their work, have labored intensively (maybe for years!) to produce it, and yet the chances of having a random member of the public read that book is slightly better than seeing a mouse turn into a pumpkin. (And if I am any indication of current readers, the chances of that book being bought are also pathetic.) So many books that won’t get read. It’s such a waste.
Yet even with those niggling thoughts in the back of my mind, walking into El Ateneo is still all light and joy. That’s probably because El Ateneo is the single most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever been inside. (A poster inside relates that the British newspaper The Guardian ranked it as the second-most beautiful bookstore in the world. Surprisingly, #4 on the list, Secret Headquarters, is in Los Angeles.)
El Ateneo looks like the product of what might have happened if Royal Albert Hall and Barnes & Noble locked eyes across a crowded room one night. Disgusted with the stiff party chatter that’s trying to be witty, both step outside for a breath of fresh air at the same moment. A look is given, a smile shared, then — a pause, pregnant with unsaid yearning. Book leaves fly, red curtains are tossed about. At the end, both regretfully acknowledge that their worlds are too different, that their union can never be. Yet something is birthed from their affaire de coeur: El Ateneo.
Or something like that.
A rather normal facade belies the wonder that awaits inside. El Ateneo resides in an old-school theater and still looks like one. A cafe sits on the main stage, which still has curtains. The circular terraces now hold books, CDs and DVDs instead of seats, with the ground floor housing still more shelved books. The box seats on the main floor on either side of the stage have thoughtfully been turned into seating areas. The color scheme inside is all white and gold, with beautiful frescoes painted on the domed ceiling. An escalator leads downstairs to the children’s section (which sadly, is underwhelming compared with the rest of the store.) WiFi is free and fairly fast. It even has a shelf of books in English.
It’s everything a good bookstore should be: comfy, cozy, beautiful and bookstore quiet (i.e. mostly quiet except for the rustling of pages and low murmurings.) The only disappointments come from the cafe (seriously, $6 for a cappuccino the size of a doll’s teacup?), but even that is easily amended as El Ateneo is about a 10-minute walk from Confiteria Del Valle, a panaderia (bakery) with the world’s BEST alfajores. THE. BEST. EVER. (Truly deserving of the all-caps and odd punctuation. Trust.)
El Ateneo is at 1860 Avenida Santa Fe in Barrio Norte, near Avenida Callao, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.