Buenos Aires: book capital of the world

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Book lovers rejoice! Book shops may be shutting down left, right and centre in every other city but Buenos Aires is brimming with brilliant bookshops.

According to a recent study by the World Cities Culture Forum, the Argentine capital has more bookshops per person (approximately 25 bookshops for every 100,000 inhabitants) than any other metropolis in the world. The Portenos passion for books can be seen at the annual book fair – the largest in the Spanish-speaking world – which takes place every April, attracting more than one million readers.

Why does Buenos Aires cherish its printed books, papers and magazines so? The answer is, I think, threefold.

It’s partly because Baires residents are  sceptical of their postal system and so shy away from shopping online at Amazon et al for books. And in Argentina, books are exempt from a sales tax (a whopping 21% on most goods) meaning that literature is  an affordable indulgence. It’s also down to the fact that Argentines are proud of their strong literary heritage – this is the land that has produced Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortazar, aka some of the greatest writers in the Spanish-speaking world. Fast forward to the 21st century and new writers like Rodrigo Fresan, who wrote the international bestseller, The History of Argentina, continue to ensure that the next generation of Argentines admire and appreciate the written word.


Lastly Argentina’s love of literature can perhaps, be attributed to its troubled past and present. The Portenos have watched their beloved Buenos Aires plunge from its lofty position as economic powerhouse during the late 19th and 20th centuries to a city stuck in a permanent financial crisis, so it’s not surprising that they seek solace in literature – one of the greatest comforts there is. Or, as Samuel Johnson once said: “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it .”

Buenos Aires’ best bookshops

El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore
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Buenos Aires is chock full of beautiful bookshops so much so, that choosing the best is like trying to select the spottiest dog in a kennel full of Dalmatians. Since you ask however, my pick would be El Ateneo Grand Splendid – voted the world’s second best bookshop by The Guardian, no less. This stunning space was once a theatre – something the balconies, white and gold-leaf boxes, crimson stage curtains and high painted ceilings bear testimony to. Subsequently El Ateneo attracts as many photographers – and gourmands (the stage has been turned into a majestic cafe) – as it does book-worms.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid (1860 Avenue Santa Fe, Buenos Aires;www.yenny-elateneo)

Walrus Books

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Buenos Aires maybe bursting with bookstores but English language bookshops are few and far between, partly explaining the popularity of Walrus Books. Run by an American photographer Geoffrey and his Argentine wife Josefina, this tiny San Telmo spot has a superb selection of both literature and non fiction books, all in English. Other pluses include regular literary workshops and the chance to trade books with fellow literature lovers. Factor in fresh plants and comfy seating and it’s easy to see why Walrus has proved a hit with Portenos and gringoes alike.
Walrus Books, Estadous Unidos 617; www.walrus-books.com.ar

Classica y Moderna
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Is this Avenue Callao venue, which opened back in 1938, a  cafe, a music space or a book store? The answer is all three. Browse the shelves of the cute bookshop, pay for your purchase and then retreat to a grand, wooden table to read it over a Cortado or two against a backdrop of  characterful brick walls. In the evening, put away your book and enjoy Classica y Moderna’s excellent live music programme. Someone has done their homework here and it shows: gold star
Classica y Moderna (Avenue Callao 892; www.clasicaymoderna.com)

“A bookstore is one of the many pieces of evidence we have, that people are still thinking.”
Jerry Seinfeld

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