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South America Is a Bookstore Nerd’s Paradise

by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Sep 20, 2018

Mention South America and people might think of hiking in the Andes or dancing at Carnaval. Perusing the titles at an urbane bookstore may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But in South America’s big cities, bookstores aren’t just pretty; they’re downright stunning. From a breathtakingly grand emporium in Buenos Aires to a sleek architectural bookshop in Bogotá, here are the loveliest bookstores in South America.

1. Librería Lerner — Bogotá, Colombia

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It should be no surprise that the country that gave us one of Latin America’s most famous writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez — author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Nobel Laureate — is going to take its bookstores seriously. The 9,300-square-foot Librería Lerner shop in Bogotá’s north zone made a splash in local architecture magazines when it opened a few years ago.

Its location in a sleek black building with double-height ceilings inside, cozy reading nooks furnished with brightly hued chairs, and striking mid-century lamps has made it a favored location for area locals. The space is so welcoming that it also hosts evening speakers and even musicians. Add a café and a collection of almost 65,000 titles, as well as daily opening hours until 7:00 PM (later, when it hosts events), and you can see why locals can’t resist stopping in to peruse a book or two in this attractive retreat.

2. Librería Más Puro Verso — Montevideo, Uruguay

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The quirky buildings of Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja, or Old Town, date back to the colonial era and the decades after Uruguay declared its independence in 1825. One of the more recent buildings in the neighborhood was erected over a century ago: a striking 1917 structure in the Art Nouveau style. Originally designed for an optometrist, the elegant structure became the home of the Más Puro Verso bookstore in 2008.

The flamboyant glass front gives way to an elegant interior with soaring ceilings and a sweeping marble staircase, backed by an ornate stained-glass window and large oblong clock. Books are spread across the store’s two floors, and a swank restaurant occupies the street-facing windows of the second floor. As if the view inside weren’t enough, from the restaurant you can look out onto Montevideo’s over-the-top Palacio Salvo building and the gates to the Old Town.

3. El Ateneo Grand Splendid — Buenos Aires, Argentina

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When it was inaugurated in 1919, the Grand Splendid Theater was a center for tango in a country that was, at the time, one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Later, Radio Splendid broadcast tango music from this site, and later still, the ornate auditorium became the first cinema in Argentina to play movies with sound. Today, the Grand Splendid calls itself an ateneo, which comes from the Greek term for a place of learning. The aristocratic setting evidently called for a more sophisticated term than just librería, or bookstore.

The 22,000-square-foot place now sells three-quarters of a million books a year. The lofty stage framed by heavy red curtains, where the world’s most celebrated tango performers used to dance with passionate intensity, now houses a chic café serving an excellent cortado (an espresso with a dash of steamed milk, and the most popular way to drink coffee in Argentina). The English book section is pretty sparse, but the Ateneo is still one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and a must-visit on your next Buenos Aires sojourn.

4. Livraria da Vila — São Paulo, Brazil

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The Livraria da Vila chain of booksellers has several stores in Brazil, which can be admired for their sharp, modern designs. One has black shelves that curve like waves against a white interior. Another has a glass exterior wall that doubles as a bookshelf, so from the outside you can look upon books decorated by tropical plants dangling from above.

Our favorite da Vila bookstore is located in São Paulo’s upscale Jardim Paulista neighborhood. The building is a squarish concrete construction whose base level is literally a wall of stark black bookcases. Those five black bookcases pivot on their middle axes, turning sideways to become doors and essentially open the entire bottom level of the store onto the street. Inside, a high ceiling and stylish interior create an appealing place to check out the assortment of books — most of them in Portuguese, though there’s a decent selection of books in English, Spanish, and other languages.

5. Librería Eterna Cadencia — Buenos Aires, Argentina

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The Libería Eterna Cadencia occupies a quaint building on a leafy stretch of Buenos Aires’s Palermo Hollywood, an area filled with restaurants and bars. Inside the petite bookseller, polished wood floors, dark oak shelves, and an ornate chandelier create a warm, welcoming aura. Photographs celebrate Argentine authors, among them literary giant Jorge Luis Borges. You’ll find a few classics and several travel books in English.

While the book area is romantically cozy and cramped, the adjacent cafe has an airy double-height ceiling and playful hanging lamps. Should you visit Buenos Aires in July or August, its chilliest winter months, the Librería Eterna Cadencia and its cafe are a perfect place to warm up with a cafe con leche and a good book.

6. Librería El Virrey — Lima, Peru

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Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood is set by the sea, allowing you to stand atop the cliffs and look down at the Pacific Ocean below. Once the location of summer villas, Miraflores is now where many wealthier Peruvians live and even work. The expansive summer homes were long ago converted to banks, restaurants, shops, and, in this case, the Librería El Virrey.

With writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature and a onetime presidential candidate, Peru has plenty to offer anyone interested in getting to know local literature. The bookstore has a decent selection of works in English, as well. El Virrey’s interior doesn’t have the grandeur of a century-old theater, but it does have boldly colored walls, a tall ceiling, and a cafe serving excellent coffee and pastries.

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