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The Swiss behind the world’s ‘most beautiful’ bookshop

The world-famous El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop in Argentina’s capital owes its existence to an entrepreneurial family with Swiss roots. 

“We transformed this 100-year-old theatre into a bookshop and now one million visitors a year come here from all over the world,” says Ricardo Arturo Grüneisen, as he surveys the store. 

The building is regularly cited in blogs and travel guides as a paradise for book lovers. France’s president Macron made a beeline for it when he visited Argentina for the G20 summit in late 2018. In 2019 the National Geographic deemed it “the world’s most beautiful bookstore”.External link 

The Swiss-Argentine Grüneisen family changed the course of this architectural masterpiece in 2000. “The building was on the verge of being shut down, but we decided to rent and refurbished it,” says Grüneisen, who is the chairman of the ILHSA Group, which owns the El Ateneo. 

Karl Otto Grüneisen
Karl Otto Grüneisen

The family is a relative newcomer to the publishing scene. Like many who migrated from Europe to Argentina, they arrived in South America with a thirst for land and a will to work. 

“My grandfather Karl Otto came to Argentina from Switzerland in 1902, when he was 25 years old. In 1908 he bought land to exploit the wood in El Chaco, 1,200 kilometres north of Buenos Aires,” Grüneisen explains. 

While there, he and another Swiss, Jules-Ulysse Martin, founded the city of Villa Ángela and the company La Chaqueña, producing tannin for the leather trade.  

From land to oil 

Karl Otto then went on to make his mark in the oil industry. “In 1928 he rescued Argentina’s first oil company, Astra, located 1,800 km south of Buenos Aires, which was in financial trouble,” recalls Grüneisen. “My grandfather became the firm’s vice-president.” 

“We had 25,000 shareholders in Geneva and Buenos Aires. But the political and economic situation was not easy,” he adds. “From 1944 to the 1990s we had 20 governments, four military governments – it was a democracy with interruptions. And we had a long period of more than three-digit annual inflation.” 

The family made the decision to sell the oil company in 1996. They then ventured into publishing, buying up the ILHSA group, which now boasts 54 bookshops. 

Cautious strategy 

“To get ahead with the three companies we have owned – La Chaqueña, Astra and now the bookstores – we have relied on a policy of very low dividends and extreme caution in this rather unique country,” says the 68-year-old.

That strategy appears to be paying off. The Grüneisen family controls 25% of publishing sales in Argentina. But, faced with another economic crisis, the next generation is turning back to the agricultural sector. 

Ricardo Arturo Grüneisen with his children Ricardo Gabriel (left) and Felipe Cayetano SWI Pisani

“We are doing the same thing as my great-grandfather did,” says Felipe Grüneisen, Ricardo Arturo’s son and Karl Otto’s great grandson. “We are proud to continue this tradition.”

Felipe is so interested in his Swiss origins that he has spent hours researching the family tree. “Fifteen years ago, we took a trip to get to know our roots and our hometown, as it’s marked in our Swiss passports: Diemtigen, in canton Bern.”

Three decades ago, the Grüneisen family regained their Swiss passports and began to take part in Swiss political life from a distance. 

And what is the legacy of great-grandfather Karl Otto now?  “Basically: work, effort, dedication and seriousness,” replies Ricardo Gabriel, another fourth-generation member of the Grüneisen clan in Argentina, as he leads us through “the most beautiful bookstore in the world” (see video).

Swiss around the world  

There are 760,200 Swiss living outside Switzerland. Argentina is home to 15,000 of them.

Translated from Spanish by Dominique Soguel

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR