When we say Buenos Aires is big on culture, we aren’t kidding. According to a 2014 study by the World Cities Cultural Forum, BA has more bookstores per capita than any other major city in the world: 25 librerías for every 100,000 people, with a total of 467. From tiny neighborhood shops to palatial emporiums, here are nine essentials—each of which boasts a fascinating history.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid
In the heart of ritzy Recoleta stands the biggest bookstore in Latin America and one of the most beautiful anywhere in the world. The store opened in 2000 inside the former Teatro Gran Splendid, and the opulence of the 1919 theater has been lovingly preserved. The old stage is now a café from which you can look up at the dome artist Nazareno Orlandi painted to celebrate peace after World War I. The book displays, meanwhile, are spread out across the theater’s many levels and carry more than 120,000 titles. El Ateneo has hosted book launches by writers from Mario Vargas Llosa to Ernesto Sábato, and it also stages musical performances, book signings and conferences.
El Rufián Melancólico
Named after one of the characters in Argentine writer Robert Artl’s Los Siete Locos, this shop in the heart of bohemian San Telmo is a place to lose yourself was founded by artist and bookseller Joel Novoa. It’s irresistibly messy, full of used books, magazines, posters and records, plus an occasional paper-mâché sculpture. If you can’t find it here, you probably won’t find it anywhere.
This shop in leafy Palermo Hollywood styles itself as a “home taken over by writers” and doubles as a publisher of a wide variety of books, from novels to essays. The cozy space, with its sofas and paper lanterns, also hosts workshops and book signings.
A young, knowledgeable staff, a cute café and a warm atmosphere are among the draws of this charming shop, located steps from the train tracks in Belgrano. Aside from a huge arsenal of fiction, Caleidoscopio has big children’s and cooking sections.
Librería de Ávila
BA’s oldest bookstore, also known as Libería del Colegio, was founded in 1785 and served as a gathering place for the planners of the 5 de Mayo Revolution in 1810. The two-story shop, a National Historic Monument, houses more than 100,000 titles, some dating back to the 18th century. The most frequently sold books in the shop’s history? The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and El Martín Fierro, by Argentina’s own José Hernández.
Another Recoleta classic, Librería Norte was founded in 1961 by Héctor Yánover, a poet and the former director of the National Library. The shop moved to its current site in 1967 and has been regularly visited by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. “We carry from the biggest best-seller to the smallest indie publisher,” says owner Débora Yánover, who took over from her father. “But our forte continues to be poetry. It’s what moves us.”
Libros del Pasaje
Located in trendy Palermo Soho, Del Pasaje is a bookshop with display tables on nifty wheels, an adorable children’s area and a cute restaurant and bar in the back. The space is also a frequent host of art and photography exhibits.
This converted brick-walled home in the up and coming neighborhood of La Chacarita neighborhood is an unexpected yet comfortable place to curl up on a sofa with a book and a glass of wine.
Librería El Gaucho
Launched in 1988, this shop in un-touristed Villa General Mitre specializes in history, art, philosophy and literature. Its seemingly endless shelves of used books are decorated with photos of famous writers. Browsing is encouraged: “Our patrons tend to stay inside for long periods of time with no obligation to buy,” reads the mission statement, “perusing at their own pace.”