One can easily observe the stately air that helped distinguish Clásica y Moderna as one of Buenos Aires’s 54 ‘Bares Historicos y Notables’, but there’s a distinct element that sets this cafe apart from the crowd. The elegance provides a world beyond the standard coffee, tasty treats and hospitable atmosphere. It serves up an additional type of sustenance: books. Clásica y Moderna, or simply ‘Clásica‘ as it is known to friends and fans, has been one of the most important and respected booksellers in Buenos Aires for over 70 years. Only in the last two decades has Clásica been serving food, coffee, wine and cocktails along with its expertly selected collection of books and lectures from the most prominent Argentine intellectuals of the day.
Clásica was opened in 1938 by Francisco Poblet, who immigrated from Spain with the sole intent of opening a bookstore in Buenos Aires. Mr. Poblet was himself the son of a bookseller, and today the store is run by his daughter Natalia, or ‘Natu’. Natu, a petite yet imposing woman who speaks with the charisma of polished conversationalist, explained to me that from the outset the bookstore was strongly dedicated to the humanities and quickly gained prestige among students of philosophy and literature. Her father would not only recommend titles but also lend out books from his own personal library. Francisco Poblet saw forming a cordial and respectful bond with his customers as the paramount service of the bookseller, a role requiring much greater intimacy than found in the usual exchange between salesclerk and customer. This credo still informs Natu’s work and was on full display when our interview was briefly interrupted by a client who had chosen to leave on account of Natu being preoccupied and unable to attend to him. She explained: “I have many clients like this, if I don’t sell to them they don’t buy.”
The store became a nexus of the intellectual community of Buenos Aires. Politicians such as Alfredo Palacios, Mario Bravo, Alicia Moreau de Justo and Argentine president Roberto Ortiz all frequented the store. As did notable writers such as Ricardo Rojas, Enrique Pezzoni, Juan Jose Sebrelli, Roberto Arlt, and Alfonsina Storni. Natu told me that the earlier days of the bookstore were in general “quieter times than now, there was more time and space for gathering and chatting”. This appreciation for the traditional, combined with the Poblet’s personable service, helped establish Clásica as a calm refuge throughout the often tumultuous modern history of Argentina.
However, like most institutions that have endured multiple decades and drastic societal changes, Clásica had to go through a period of modernization. In 1980 Francisco Poblet died and Natu quit her job as an architect to help her brother Paco manage the store. In the early 80s Clásica became an evermore popular location for book presentations, lectures and cultural meetings. Isabel Allende, Juan José Sebrili, Abelardo Castillo and David Viñas all presented their works to a freshly invigorated population following the restoration of democracy. As these presentations and meetings became more frequent, and Paco and Natu found themselves providing their guests with drinks and clearing space amongst the bookshelves, they realized that the bookstore had “organically” reached a point of change.
The changes that were made, dramatically reducing the quantity of books and turning the open space into a dining room, bar and small stage, were difficult for the Poblets due to their great respect for tradition instilled in them by their father. But Natu assured me that “more important than the size of the bookstore is the size of the head of the bookseller”. And like the bookstore before it, the cafe that the Poblets created has become an esteemed and successful destination in and of itself.
The cafe area’s dark brick walls, exposed ventilation, and dim lighting give it the feel of a bluesy back alley where you’re likely to slip into some unmarked door and discover a hidden gem. The walls are adorned with distinctly modern paintings and photographs which are in constant rotation. A table-high wooden counter top runs in between the two rows of tables in the middle of the room and provides an excellent stand for reading material while eating.
The lunch menu includes a featured book on the cover with information and reviews inside. While being on the slightly more pricey side of set menus, at $35, our lunch was delicious and large enough to share. Our friendly and accommodating waiter, Carlos, carefully separated the meal for us so as not to cause any resentments. The lunch consisted of a perfectly seared chicken breast in a white cream sauce which was much lighter than the usual porteño take. Likewise, the side vegetables were fresher than what often come across as mere afterthoughts in local kitchens.
The larger menu pays homage to literary and film greats with salads named after Corázar, Kundera and Neruda and and dishes like the Fellini, Almodovar, Pechuga Kundera, Pollito Woody Allen and Picada Umberto Ecco. Most consist of typical Argentine fare with meat as the feature and greens as decoration and range from $30 to $50.
The service was excellent and Carlos was thoughtful enough to seat us at the prime table to hear the musings of pianist Juan Carlos Abitábile, who plays in the cafe every weekday starting at one. The relaxing jazz riffs and playful interpretive takes on tango standards quelled any tensions remaining from the commotion of the city outside of Clásica’s doors. Abitábile also epitomised the Poblet sense of service, periodically releasing one hand from his keyboard to offer a hardy pat on the back and daily quip to a passing regular. This familial atmosphere and tranquility draws, along with the legion of loyal book buyers and curious passer-bys, many lawyers and executives from the nearby Tribunales area to seek refuge inside the slower paced Clásica.
And they are wise to do so. The serenity of the space, the genial and thorough service of the staff and the superb selection of titles in the bookstore blend together to make Clásica a highly welcomed escape from the teeming activity of Buenos Aires. It is a fitting example of the description of a bookstore that Álvaro Abós gives in the book commemorating Clásica’s 70th anniversary: “A bookstore is like a temple where times stops on the threshold, but through which the climate and pulse of the period have to sweep, wild and uncontained as the wind.”